Meanwhile, in a Parallel Election

I voted!

No, not in the u.s. election – Ἀθηνᾶ κρείττων!

Nah, I voted for which book we will read next in the Auburn Science Fiction and Philosophy Reading Group.

This was a more cheerful and civilised affair than the u.s. election in at least seven ways:

1. Minority choices have no trouble getting on the ballot; any individual member of the group can nominate a book (or several), without having to collect multiple signatures on a petition.

2. The number of participants is small enough that any individual vote has an actual chance of making a decisive difference to the outcome.

3. Voting involves rank-ordering the candidates via an online Condorcet poll, so no one has to choose between voting for their favourite among the front runners and voting for their favourite absolutely.

4. We choose a new book every month or two, so there’s strict rotation in office with very short terms – no perpetually incumbent books.

5. The reading group is a purely voluntary association. If any members aren’t happy with the winning choice, and want to go off on their own to read and discuss a different book, the rest of us wouldn’t dream of trying to stop them, let alone telling them that by voting (or by not voting) they have committed themselves to reading the winning book.

6. All the books nominated look worthwhile, and I would be happy to read and discuss any of them.

7. Facebook has not been reminding me every few minutes to vote for the next book.

O idéal lointain!

What Friends Are For

…if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police….Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State. When they do–down with the State, say I, which means that the State would down me.

E.M. Forster, “What I Believe

How are you dear friend?

Did you hear about the closing [of] the American consulate in Jerusalem that provide[s] services for Palestinians?

This means a lot for us as Palestinians because this denies our presence as if there are no Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West [B]ank. Imagine that my son wants to travel and study in the USA, where can he apply for his visa? I am very disappointed my friend. My dream is that my son will study English literature in the USA. Now, it’s impossible.

What Trump is doing against us is unbelievable! He is contributing [to] making our life harder.

Please dear friend we need your support to stop this.

A Palestinian friend of mine from the village of (Arab) Tekoa, outside Bethlehem, not to be confused with the nearby Israeli settlement of that name

Continue reading

Dr. No at the Voting Booth: An Election Day Parable

Today is Election Day in New Jersey–our primary election. For months I’ve been blathering on and on like a fan-boy about the virtues and wonders of the Democratic front runner for Congress in New Jersey’s 11th district, Mikie Sherrill. I was a fan way before the Times was. I went to her meetings. I contributed dutifully to her campaign via Blue Wave. At the last meeting, I grabbed a “Mikie Sherrill for Congress” lawn sign–not that I have a lawn. Today was going to be the proud day when, at last, I voted for her. Indeed, I Facebooked my intentions the night before:

My votes for the primary election: a “yes” to Mikie Sherrill for 11th district congressional representative, a “no” to Robert Menendez for US Senate.

I’d cross out the entire Republican slate if I could. But I’ll save that for November.

And I would, if I could. But I’ll get to that. Continue reading

Moral Grandstanding and Character-Based Voting

I’ve recently been teaching Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s paper, “Moral Grandstanding“–and simultaneously been working on a paper on Jason Brennan’s critique of character-based voting–and happened to see an interesting connection between the two. So this post harks back to, and ties together, two topics we’ve recently been discussing here at PoT–Michael’s recent post on grandstanding, and mine on character-based voting.

Suppose, as per Brennan’s argument in The Ethics of Voting, that character-based voting is justified insofar as character functions either as a proxy for the policies that a candidate might enact once elected, or more generally, for the quality of governance he might be expected to engage in. Now suppose that character-based voting sometimes is justified on those grounds, so that character sometimes does function as a proxy variable for predictions about a candidate’s capacities for good governance in the future. Continue reading

I’m APA, and I Vote!

I sent this to the “Contact Us” box of the New Jersey Republican Party. I’m annoyed.

Can you explain why there is no information to be found anywhere on three of the four candidates up for election in the 28th district? Darnel Henry, David Pinckney, and Antonio Pires are on the ballot, but it’s impossible to tell who they are or what they stand for. Adam Kraemer has a website, but apparently doesn’t know how to spell the word “intimidate.” Election Day is about two weeks away. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here with my mail-in ballot, wondering what to do with it. I get a mail-in ballot each year so that I can spend some time thinking about who to vote for. Year after year I face the conundrum that there’s nothing to think about. The Democrats field candidates. The Republicans field nothing.

Incidentally, here we are in the year 2015, and the Essex County Republican organization can’t manage to create a website for itself or for its candidates. (To be fair, neither can the Democrats, apparently.) When one of you manages to create a website, it turns out he can’t spell. But somehow you expect us to believe that you can run a government. No wonder that when the governor creates a scandal, his first line of defense is to plead ignorance and incompetence. What else does the Republican Party stand for?

I’ve taken for too long to do this, but I’m changing my party affiliation at first opportunity, and throwing my mail-in ballot in the garbage right now. If only I could throw the GOP in with it.

“Thank you for your comment. Someone from the New Jersey Republican Party will be getting in touch with you shortly.”

Believe it or not, I gave them my phone number and email address–the price of leaving a message. I await the robo-calls. I hope they like The Who.

Postscript. Just changed my party affiliation to Democrat. Was a lot easier to do than I thought it would be. Wish I’d done it earlier.

Postscript, November 3, 2015: It’s Election Day, two weeks later. No one ever contacted me. If they can’t keep a promise to get “in touch with you shortly,” how many of their campaign promises do you think they’d have kept?

The Politics of Voting: Four Suggestions

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about voting. I have Jason Brennan to thank for having stimulated me to sustained thought on the subject, via his much-acclaimed book, The Ethics of Voting. As I’ve said before, I agree with Brennan’s thesis in a general way, but the more I think about the details of his argument, the less plausible I find them. (I find his arguments for voter disenfranchisement downright hopeless.) Here’s a link to the 2013 Reason Papers symposium on Brennan’s book, and here’s a link to an earlier critique at PoT of Brennan’s account of character-based voting.

I’ll have more to say about Brennan’s arguments as I find the time to write about them. Meanwhile, here are four quick thoughts on voting, three of them relevant to American elections, the fourth to Israeli elections. In each case, it seems to me that the wrong issues are being discussed–when they’re being discussed at all–and that we ought to change the terms of debate. Only the last of the four topics is relevant to Brennan’s work.

(I) Felon Disenfranchisement
There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about felon disenfranchisement: felons in the U.S. (perhaps elsewhere, but I don’t know) are deprived of the right to vote. Here’s a fairly typical piece from The New York Times criticizing felon disenfranchisement as racist.

I find discussion of this topic confused. There are at least three different issues involved here; each needs to be distinguished from the others and discussed on its own terms.

(1) A first issue is: given an ideal definition of “felony,” and a well-functioning criminal justice system, should felons be permitted to vote, or should they be deprived of that right as an inherent part of their punishment?

My answer is, “they should be deprived of the right to vote.” I endorse a debt-based conception of punishment according to which, when we interact with someone, we owe him or her (at a minimum) respect for their rights. When someone violates those rights, he incurs a debt to the victim–a debt consisting of compensation for the lost value of the exercise of the victim’s right, among many other things. Punishment, in my view, ought to consist of repayment of that debt. If the debt can’t be paid in full–and for a variety of reasons, it may be impossible to do so–offenders can permissibly be deprived of those goods that would count as ill-gotten gains from crime.

Some simple examples: If you rob me, your voting to dispose of my income without having compensated me for the commission of the crime counts as an ill-gotten gain. Since you’re not entitled to such a gain, you can be disenfranchised. If you kidnap me, what you’ve done is illicitly to try to “govern” my actions by brute force. If I survive, you owe me compensation for your trying to rule me in this way. But voting is a case of ruling me, as well. So ruling me by the ballot counts as an ill-gotten gain (or would) until you’ve paid off the debt you incurred by kidnapping me. And so, once again, you can be disenfranchised until you do.

Suppose that the repayment-requirements on such debts are prohibitively high–high enough that they can’t typically be paid in full by anyone, regardless of how wealthy they are. On my view, government should in such cases have the authority to deprive offenders indefinitely of the right to vote. If you (the offender) can’t compensate me (the victim) for what you’ve done to me, you don’t have the right indirectly (i.e., by voting) to decide the disposition of goods that belong to me. And that, in effect, justifies the disenfranchisement policy we currently have. (For a somewhat similar view of punishment, see the work of Daniel McDermott, who defends what he calls a debt-based conception of retributivism. I’m not sure where McDermott stands on felony disenfranchisement, however.)

Suppose now that we think of government, on Lockean grounds, as a kind of mutual-defense pact for the protection of rights. In that case, any attack on the rights of any member of the pact is an attack on the rights of every party to the pact. By implication, a debt owed to the victim is simultaneously a debt owed to every party to the pact. If the debt in question cannot be discharged in full–and if the crime is serious enough, it probably can’t be–then the parties to the pact can permissibly deny the offender access to ill-gotten goods in lieu of full payment of the debt.

This resolves the old problem of the “missing beneficiary.” For example: if you murder me, you incur a debt to me for having done so. Of course, being dead, I’m not around to collect the debt. In that case, you owe a debt to the rights-respecting members of my society–via their agent, government. Now suppose that you can’t pay the debt in full. In that case, they can deprive you of certain categories of goods on my behalf as well as theirs. One good they can deprive you of is the right to vote: after all, your having that right would give you the right to dispose of the income that they have earned while you still owe them compensation for the right you’ve violated. And you’re not entitled to that. (Incidentally, even if I’m physically unavailable to collect a debt for having been murdered or wrongfully killed, I could during my lifetime have set up an escrow account as an insurance policy in the event of my murder/wrongful death. In that case, an offender might still be obliged to compensate me posthumously, with the proceeds going to my heirs or to the state, as my will or lack of one implies.)

Something similar would apply to rape, to assault and battery, to drunk driving, and to plenty of other recognizable felonies. In short, I don’t see why, as long as we define “felony” properly, felons should be allowed to vote. The debts they’ve incurred to the rest of us are sufficiently high that we needn’t worry so much about whether they have the right to govern us, or dispose of our income. They don’t. I don’t mean to suggest that we have no obligations toward them. I just means that access to the ballot isn’t one of them.

(2) Second issue: is the operative definition of “felony” in the U.S. a good one? Does it, on moral grounds, include and exclude the appropriate items?

I’d say: “no” and “no.” This issue is the one that, in my view, actually gives rise to the felon disenfranchisement controversy. The real problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve made felons of people who shouldn’t be felons, and in consequence of that, have deprived people of the right to vote who should have it. If doing so has adverse racial consequences, my suggestion is: redefine “felon” more narrowly, so as to exclude certain categories of crimes from the list of felonies. If we do, I suspect that the “felon disenfranchisement” problem (insofar as it is a problem) either disappears or is greatly reduced in scope.

(3) Third issue: regardless of the definition of “felony,” is the U.S. criminal justice system systematically and unjustifiably biased against certain populations or sub-populations?

My answer: “probably.” No matter how we define “felon,” there will probably be residual problems in our criminal justice system, some of them with adverse racial consequences–some of them just plain old unjust–and those problems need to be addressed. But the resolution of those problems is not facilitated by the enfranchisement of felons. Convicted murderers, rapists, batterers, and drunk drivers have no distinctive insight into the rights and wrongs of criminal procedure. Nor does it make much sense to bank on the possibility that some small fraction of those convicted felons might be innocent (I’m sure some are), and might impart the wisdom of innocence to us via the ballot. The probabilities of that happening are tiny enough to render the venture as a whole quixotic.

The bottom line is that instead of crusading for voting rights for murderers, kidnappers, rapists, robbers, etc., we ought to be redefining “felony” and actively reforming the defects of our criminal justice system. Felon enfranchisement is just a distraction from those far more important tasks.

(II) Voter ID laws
Now consider voter ID laws. Here’s a usefully balanced article, also from the Times, suggesting that voter ID laws, while problematic, do not have the large-scale effects that some have alleged of them.

The standard argument for voter ID laws is that they pre-empt or minimize voter fraud. The standard argument against them asserts that there is little evidence of voter fraud in the U.S., that voter ID laws have racist effects, and that contrary to their proponents’ rhetoric, voter ID laws are covertly there to produce racist effects.

Once again, however, all this seems to me a distraction from the real issue. To see why, consider the tacit implication of the arguments against voter ID laws. Why, according to those arguments, are voter ID laws unfair? Spelled out, the answer is that large numbers of Americans lack the means to obtain photo IDs for themselves. Lacking access to photo IDs, they can’t meet the requirements of voter ID laws, and are de facto disenfranchised by them.

Suppose ex hypothesi that that’s true, and pause on it for a moment. Voting aside, isn’t that precisely the problem in need of discussion and rectification? How is it that large numbers of people in a first world country do not have access to the means of self-identification? Even if we do away with voter ID laws, the underlying problem remains in place. In other words, even if you don’t need an ID to vote, you need it for other things. How are people without IDs expected to open bank accounts, visit the doctor, or travel by plane–or get driver’s licenses, library cards, discount cards, or government benefits, etc.? Either they’re to do without these things because they lack ID, or they need access to these things, and must therefore obtain access to IDs. I would opt for the latter option, but no matter how you slice it, the issue is not voter IDs, but access to IDs as such. 

The scarce-access-to-IDs situation seems to me a good argument for having some equivalent of a national identity card in just the way and for just the same reasons that so many other countries have them. Here’s a case for them, from the Washington Post.

I agree with the reasons the Post gives for having them, but I’d give one more. It’s been argued by critics of social contract theory since Hume* that express consent theories of consent to government do not or cannot work because we never in fact consent expressly to government. I suppose that that’s partly true, at least for natural-born citizens; we don’t consent to government in the way that we consent, say, to the terms of a credit card. But I see national ID laws as a chance to respond to that problem. Why not structure the task of getting a national ID so that the act of getting one either requires express consent to the government issuing the card, or requires explicit non-consent? If you consent, you get an ID card, and with it, the benefits and burdens of “membership” in the polity. If you refuse consent, you don’t get a card, and can be denied the benefits of membership while being spared the burdens.

There are, to be sure, lots of complications here, many of them entangled in debates about immigration and immigration policy. I can’t settle those here. I would just say that it seems to me that the mechanism I describe is possible, and that its existence would rebut Hume-type arguments against consent, and solve some other practical problems as well. At the very least, focusing on our ID problem–which has significant adverse effects on people’s living their lives–beats focusing on a voter ID problem that seems not to have any significant effects on voting.

(III) Low voter turnout
Now consider the low voter turnout issue. The problem here is supposed to be that relatively few voters show up to vote. In partisan terms, that means that Democrats fare badly in the elections (which, of course, matters more to Democrats than to others). In more general terms, it means that our democracy is not as “robust” as it could be. Personally, I happen to think it means that the ballot choices we’re typically offered aren’t worth voting for, whether for or against. Here’s a website,, devoted to discussion of the issue. Once again, however, it seems to me that much of the discussion there and elsewhere is focused on the wrong things.

Suppose that we want to increase voter participation. (There are reasons not to want to, having to do with wrongful voting and voter incompetence, but set them aside.)  In that case, I’d offer two proposals:

(1) Put a “None of the Above” option on the ballot, so that voters can vote against all the (other) options on the ballot. As things currently stand, you can write “NOTA” as a “write in” on the ballot (I regularly do), but few people realize this, and most people surmise, correctly, that write-ins are meaningless. (I’ve encountered poll workers unaware of the fact that NOTA is a write-in possibility.) But if “NOTA” were on the ballot, it would be at least as significant as any other option on the ballot, and all those disgruntled voters who don’t vote because they dislike all the options might now vote in order to express that view.

(2) Move Election Day from Tuesday to the weekend. Yes, a small minority of mostly religious voters might be inconvenienced by that move (if so, they can use absentee ballots), but as it stands, huge numbers of working people are inconvenienced by Election Day’s having to compete with the workday. Change the day, and I suspect you’d increase voter turnout.

(IV) Voting and the right to complain
 Let me move now from American to Israeli elections, or more precisely, elections in Jerusalem. When I visited Israel/Palestine in 2013, I was both surprised and dismayed to discover that while East Jerusalemite Palestinians have the right to vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections (though not in Israeli national elections), they almost unanimously refuse to exercise that right, even though their exercising it would substantially change the political landscape of Jerusalem, and benefit them. The argument I heard from Palestinians was that voting would legitimize Israel, which they refuse to do. Sadly, the few Palestinians who offered to run for municipal office, or to vote for pro-Palestinian candidates or causes, were widely regarded by other Palestinians as traitors to the Palestinian cause.

I find that a self-defeating and incoherent set of attitudes. East Jerusalemite Palestinians widely accept–and demand–government benefits from Israel, so it makes no sense for them to refuse to exercise political rights that are on offer from Israel, especially if the refusal to exercise those rights merely disempowers those who refuse to exercise them. The fact is, the budget for government services in East Jerusalem is in the hands of non-Palestinian Israelis, as are decisions bearing on the protection of Palestinian rights. As things currently stand, decisions on both sets of issues are made in ways that ignore or violate Palestinian rights. I would argue that respect for one’s rights is essential to one’s well-being. As it happens, the only efficacious way of ensuring respect for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem is to make changes to the budget and policies of the Jerusalem municipal authority. And the only efficacious way of changing the budget and policies of that authority is to vote to change them. So the options are: vote to defend your rights, or acquiesce in their violation and the consequent diminution of your well-being.

Suppose that we each  have a self-regarding moral obligation to promote our well-being (insofar as doing so is open to us). If so, give the preceding facts, Palestinians ought to vote. If “ought-hood” is sufficient for “duty” or “obligation,” then eligible Palestinian voters have a moral obligation to vote. Contrary to a recent argument of Jason Brennan’s, then, the case of East Jerusalemite Palestinians seems a picture-perfect example of the old saw that if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain–or more precisely, if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain about the things that voting would have improved, and that only voting can improve, at least for the foreseeable future. If you’re going to be taxed, and you’re going to be regulated, it makes no sense to stand by as your tax money is spent by everyone but you on everything but what matters to you. It likewise makes no sense to stand by as you are regulated to death by the people who are spending your money, as your rights go violated or ignored. Voting is in effect an act of self-defense, and self-defense is a moral obligation.

The obstacle here is supposed to be that it is not instrumentally rational for individual voters to vote, because individual votes cannot change the outcome of an election (or more precisely, cannot change the outcome of a sufficiently large election–a qualification that is sometimes relevant but often ignored in discussions of “voting,” as though all voting were large-scale voting). But if you know anything about Palestinian political culture, I think you’ll see that this objection is spurious. There is no need to worry about the efficacy or utility of individual votes qua individual if the voters in question don’t conceive of their votes in those terms in the first place. If voters naturally conceive of themselves as members of a solidaristic group, and can coordinate their efforts in a given direction as a group–and have a strong reason to do so, and might well be inclined to do so–then the unit of concern is not the utility of individual votes, but the the votes of voting blocs qua blocs whose members self-consciously act in concert.

I realize I’m describing an idealized case, but my point is, it’s a possible case. In fact, it’s more possible and plausible than half of the thought-experiments that clog the philosophical literature. (By the way, there is no contradiction between seeing yourself as an individual with an individual obligation to promote your well-being, and seeing yourself, qua voter, as part of a voting bloc. Membership in the bloc could precisely be what promotes your individual well-being, so that your individual well-being is what dictates membership and a solidaristic self-conception in the first place.)

Now suppose that Palestinians** get their act together, ditching the nationalist and Islamist rhetoric that has retarded their progress for decades. They come to see voting as an act of both collective and individual self-defense. They also see the defense of their rights as a contribution to the common good (which includes Israelis). Suppose (perhaps improbably but not impossibly) that the Israelis do not interfere significantly with Palestinians’ voting en masse.

Suppose further that Palestinians think of voting by analogy with having an intifada. In other words, as with the first intifada in the 1980s, they organize their efforts to vote strategically*** as a single unified voting bloc: they caucus, organize, and promise one another to vote for pro-Palestinian policies. Suppose that it is relatively obvious what these policies should be, and what the votes for these policies should be. Suppose, further, that voters are well-informed. Now suppose that a large number of Palestinians enter these caucuses voluntarily, and through caucusing, manage to ascertain (by mechanisms internal to the caucuses) that there are enough Palestinian votes among them to tip the scales of a given Jerusalem election. If so, each Palestinian voter could regard himself or herself as part of an assurance contract with all other Palestinian voters. And if so, each voter would have an obligation (to the others and to him or herself) to vote in the way he or she had promised in the contract.

My argument here is essentially that if you can organize a mass uprising–an intifada–you can organize a mass voter campaign. Further, if an intifada involves the implicit equivalent of an assurance contract (as it does), you can in principle model  a mass voter campaign on an intifada, and turn the campaign into an activity that involves an actual assurance contract. But if contracts bind, an electoral assurance contract yields a duty to vote. So under certain nomologically possible conditions, there can be a duty to vote, and given this duty, it can be irrational to complain about unfair or harmful political policies if you don’t vote.

I can’t work through all the details here, but take a look at Brennan’s argument in light of the preceding. Either my East Jerusalem case is a counter-example to his thesis, or it’s a defeater for it. In the first case, it refutes the thesis as stated. In the second case, it suggests that the thesis is highly misleading as stated. Given that, my argument requires that Brennan qualify his claims about the ethics of voting in ways that take more explicit stock of cases like the East Jerusalem one–something that would substantially change the “flavor” of his theory.

I realize that Brennan has an explicit discussion of strategic voting in his book (Ethics of Voting, pp. 129-33), and that the discussion includes a “strategic voting clause” (p. 131), but I think almost all of what he says talks past what I’m saying here. What he doesn’t discuss either in the book or in the article I’ve linked to, is the possibility that you could have a duty to vote in cases like the East Jerusalem one, that your vote would matter in those cases, and that you’d have no right to complain if you didn’t vote. (See the notes below for a comment on “strategic voting.”)

While you’re looking at Brennan’s arguments, read his discussion of “the moral disenfranchisement of poor minorities” in The Ethics of Voting, pp. 105-7. I find the discussion very inadequate even on its own terms, but for present purposes it’s worth noting how narrow it is. Like so many American writers, in writing about “minorities,” Brennan structures his discussion around black-white relations in the U.S., assuming somehow that what he says about that will generalize elsewhere–everywhere. It doesn’t. In particular, he assumes that “poor minorities [will] overwhelmingly qualify as bad voters” by his criteria, and offers some rather handwaving suggestions about how they’re to handle–or how he would think about handling–their disenfranchisement.

What he doesn’t consider is the possibility that the issues in contention in a given election may sometimes be entirely straightforward and require nothing in the way of the social scientific “credentials” he regards as necessary conditions for eligibility to vote. Putting aside the American case, I think this is patently obvious in non-American ones, like that of East Jerusalem. It takes no special social scientific wisdom to figure out that your interests, your rights, and the common good are better promoted by someone who stands for fairness than by someone who makes no secret of wanting to subvert your interests, violate your rights and exclude you from the common good. If Brennan’s epistemic elite hasn’t figured that out, frankly, they have a lot to learn.

I’m hoping to spend the summer of 2015 in East Jerusalem teaching at Al Quds University. While I’m there, I intend to make the case for what I call rights-based strategic voting by Palestinians in Israeli elections. Feel free to hit me with objections in the combox if you disagree with the sketch I’ve just given of it. I may well be hit with more than that while I’m there, and I’d like to start my preparations now.

*Actually, Hume concedes, almost parenthetically, that consent is a possible basis for political legitimacy: “I only pretend [aver] that it has very seldom had place in any degree, and never almost in its full extent” (paragraph 20). But that claim is entirely compatible with consent’s coming to be the basis of political legitimacy in the future by concerted effort aiming to bring it about. Considered as an argument against Locke on consent, what Hume says in “Of the Original Contract” strikes me as a series of ignoratios elenchi.

**For brevity, I use the word “Palestinian” throughout, but I don’t really mean to be restricting that to ethnic Palestinians. I’m using “Palestinian” as short-hand for those who would actively organize for and act on behalf of Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem. The bulk of those people would most likely be ethnic Palestinians, but not all of them would. It’s just too cumbersome to be explicit about this in every sentence.

***I’m using the term “strategic” in its colloquial, not its technical sense. In its technical sense, “strategic voting” is voting for candidates or policies that are contrary to one’s sincere preference, in the hopes that doing so will realize some preferred outcome. In the colloquial sense, “strategic” voting is simply voting to bring about some end by means of a collectively-adopted political strategy for bringing the end about. I happen to think that the technical concept of “strategic voting” is a confused and equivocal one, but that doesn’t matter. My scenario makes no reference to insincerity on voters’ part.

Postscript, Nov. 30, 2014 (relevant to proposal I, felon disenfranchisement): This blog post, at Slate Star Codex, is well worth reading on the race and criminal justice in the United States. It complicates the picture, but I don’t think it changes anything I said about felon disenfranchisement. Hat-tip: Kate Herrick.

Postscript, April 5, 2015 (relevant to proposal IV, voting and the right to complain): Useful background on the political situation in East Jerusalem, from the London Review of Books.

Postscript, December 25, 2015 (relevant to proposal II, voter ID laws): An interesting article in The New York Times about Mayor DeBlasio’s “New York ID” program and the obstacles to success it’s facing at area banks. All things considered, the program seems a step in the right direction.

Jason Brennan on character-based voting: the cases of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump (with several updates)

Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India, recently on a speaking tour in the US and elsewhere, and promoting his nationalist agenda for India wherever he goes. He’s very much the talk of the town, which is a great irony, considering that less than a decade ago, he was in effect barred from entering town: he was denied a visa to enter the United States for his failure to stop the Gujarat riots/massacre of 2002, and boycotted in Europe for much the same reason. Back then, he was a relatively obscure figure, at least by international standards. Now, he’s the Prime Minister of a major world power. Evidently, the principle involved here is that if you play a presumptively culpable role in a massacre, you’re to be treated with contempt until you assume the trappings of power. Once you do, the passage of time and victory in a democratic election jointly wipe the slate clean, and you’re to be treated with respect and admiration, bygones being bygones–even if some of the bygones include a few thousand corpses for which you were plausibly thought to bear responsibility. Wait and win, and you’re out of the moral doghouse. It’s an interesting lesson–about India, about democratic politics, about historical memory, and about justice. Worth remembering for other contexts.

I bring the issue up not (merely) to moralize about Modi (whom I admittedly despise) but as a counter-example to the discussion of character-based voting in Jason Brennan’s much-praised and much-discussed book, The Ethics of Voting. I generally agree with the thesis of Brennan’s book, at least as I understand it, which is that epistemically incompetent voters ought not to vote.  But having edited a symposium on the book in Reason Papers last year, and having read some of the discussion of it there and elsewhere, I’ve been surprised at  how much of what is contestable about Brennan’s argument has gone entirely undiscussed and uncontested by his peers, peer-reviewed and otherwise. Brennan’s discussion of character-based voting is one such example (EV, pp. 84-85), and the case of Narendra Modi conveniently serves to focus the issues.

The discussion of character-based voting comes up in chapter 3 of the book, which is devoted to explication of the concept of “wrongful voting.” “Unexcused harmful voting occurs when a person votes, without epistemic justification, for harmful policies or for candidates likely to enact harmful policies” (EV, p. 68). Brennan’s point is that we ought to refrain from engaging in unexcused harmful voting. It follows that citizens should vote only if their beliefs about the prospective harm or welfare-conductivity of policies are epistemically justified–probably a small minority of actual voters. The two crucial concepts here are epistemic justification and harmful policies. Brennan doesn’t explicate either, but assumes that on some version of both, his thesis turns out to be correct.

One objection to Brennan’s view is that we might vote for or against someone on the basis of character, not knowledge about the welfare-conducivity of the policies they intend to enact. Take some political candidate, X. My beliefs about X’s policies may be unjustified, epistemically speaking; they may be vague, vacuous, or based on very little evidence. But my beliefs about his character may be perfectly on target. Suppose I correctly regard X as (very) immoral, correctly regard Y as morally decent, and vote for Y because I regard X as so immoral that a vote for Y is preferable to one for X even if I’m generally (though not completely) ignorant of the relative policy implications of voting for X versus Y. Assume that Y’s policies will predictably be worse than X’s (though not egregiously so), but X’s past is egregiously unjust whereas Y’s is perfectly decent.

According to Brennan, unless I treat my judgments of X’s past immorality as proxies for predictions about X’s future policies, my vote is a case of unexcused wrongful voting no matter what X might have done in the past. It’s not clear why, however, and he doesn’t make it clear. What if, as a voter, I weight character over policy as a criterion for voting, at least in cases as egregious as those like X’s? Why is that unexcused wrongful voting? Or is it excused wrongful voting?

Let X be Narendra Modi, and ex hypothesi assume the worst about Modi’s role in Gujarat. Further (also ex hypothesi), assume the worst about Gujarat. If I were an Indian citizen voting in the last election, I would have voted against Modi simply because his role in the Gujarat affair put him beyond the pale for holding the position of Prime Minister of India. The issue is not so much that I expect Modi to repeat his past behavior; in fact, it’s unlikely that he will. Given the scrutiny he’s gotten over the years–and the visa denials and boycotts, etc.–Modi is likely to be more careful about how he expresses his nationalist sentiments, and is likely to overcompensate for his past sins, at least in policy contexts.  Nor is it that I think that Modi’s policies are likely to be inferior to those of his political rivals. They may actually end up being a bit better, at least from a free market perspective. The relevant point is simply that Modi ought not to be rewarded for his past behavior, and voting him into office is a reward (a huge one), one that evades the moral significance of that past behavior. Justice demands that we not grant the unearned, and Modi’s past behavior disqualifies him from earning title to the office he now holds.

For purposes of this post, I don’t want to go into the factual details of Modi’s actual (past) behavior. Doing so is unnecessary, since my aim here is to contest Brennan’s discussion of character-based voting, and to that end, Modi simply draws attention to a relevant possibility–viz., the evil political candidate who is likely to enact better policies than the merely decent one. So if you’re not familiar with Modi’s past, or you disagree with my interpretation of it, we can simply imagine a Modi-like figure and use that as a point of departure for thinking about Brennan’s argument.

So here are my stipulations: Imagine a Modi-like candidate for office who has behaved disgracefully in an affair like the Gujarat massacres of 2002 (or worse). Imagine that he showed callous disregard for the lives of his fellow citizens when he had the responsibility to protect them. Imagine that thousands of innocents died as a result. Imagine that there is good evidence that his own nationalist political agenda explains the animus for those massacred, motivated those who killed them, and rationalized the killings (using “rationalized” in the colloquial, not Davidsonian sense).

Now fast forward about a decade. Imagine our Modi-like candidate going up for the highest office in the land. Imagine that he claims to have cleaned up his act, having done an about-face from his bad old days a decade ago. Imagine that there is no serious question that his forthcoming policies will revert to the ways of his bad old days.  Assume that his policies will actually be an improvement on what the country currently has, and what the other candidate has to offer. Now imagine a rival anti-Modi candidate who is morally decent (and in particular, critical of Modi’s behavior in Gujarat). Let his policies be relatively indeterminate–not great, but not of the sort that might lead to any policy disaster. (Take the party you dislike most and imagine them enacting a safe and pragmatic version of politics as usual.) Let them just end up being worse at the margins than those of the Modi-like immoral candidate. Brennan’s thesis implies that we ought to vote for the immoral candidate, not the decent one. But why?

Here’s what he says:

To a significant degree, voting for character is voting for wrong reasons. When we elect someone, we give him power. That power can be used for good or bad. The office of the presidency is not an honorific meant to show [that] we respect that person’s character. Giving someone the presidency is not bestowing a medal or a certification of commendation but giving him (some) control of the state, an institution that makes rules, and forces innocent people to comply with these rules using violence and threats of violence. We need to be sure he will do a good job controlling it.

The first sentence refers the reader in a footnote to Russell Hardin’s How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge and Bernard Manin’s The Principles of Representative Government. I haven’t read either book, so if my objection is answered there, I’d concede my case. But for present purposes my point is that my objection is not answered by Brennan in The Ethics of Voting: the passage above does nothing to answer what I regard as the most obvious objection, posed by Modi-like cases. It begs the question and offers an ignoratio elenchi.

Brennan starts by telling us that voting for character is “to a significant degree” voting for the wrong reasons. But I’d respond that it’s a principle of justice that we ought not to reward wrongdoing. Modi-like people have, to put mildly, engaged in serious wrongdoing. So justice entails that we ought not to reward them. The issue then turns on whether a vote for high office like Prime Minister of India is a reward. I think it obviously is: you reward someone when you give them what they want, and that in turn gives them power, prestige, income, a place in history, an opportunity to enact their values on a wide scale, and other perks they couldn’t otherwise have gotten.

Brennan’s discussion bypasses this last fact. The office of the presidency, he tells us, is not an honorific.  Why not? He gives no argument for its not being an honorific, and doesn’t consider the possibility that it might constitute a reward without being primarily an honorific. To the extent that he thinks he has an argument, he simply adduces a different fact about the presidency that supposedly rebuts the claim that the presidency is in part an honorific–that the presidency involves the exercise of power. But this fact, though true, doesn’t really help his case. Political offices could both confer rewards on office-holders and give people control of the state. The one function is perfectly compatible with the other, especially when control is a reward.

Yes, we need to make sure that those who hold power control their use of it. But we can do this as long as we have very vague ideas about a person’s policies. As long as I know that Modi’s rivals aren’t going to enact crazy policies that will take India to perdition, and I believe that they’re decent people lacking an outright lust for power, I know they will manage to control power somehow. (Brennan basically concedes this point in his paper “The Right to a Competent Electorate,” when he says: “We should not overestimate the damage bad voting can do…Even in the US or the UK disastrous candidates rarely have a chance of winning….” p. 707). The wrongs they do via bad policies may be bad, but I may find them more tolerable than the wrong done by rewarding someone responsible for mass murder with the perks of high office. I may be ignorant about the details of the relative merits of Modi’s versus his rival’s policies. But as long as I know that Modi is immoral or evil, and that his rival is tolerable, I may know all I need to know to vote against him.

In other words: If I am more committed to the backward-looking principle of not rewarding past evil than I am (within limits) to forward-looking considerations about good or bad policies, it seems to me I can justifiably vote for the policy-suboptimal candidate so as to avoid voting for the evil candidate even when the evil candidate is more likely to enact better policies.  When I do so, I’ll have some vague thoughts about policy considerations, but I’ll have epistemically justified thoughts about character, and the thoughts I have need not be proxies for future policies but might instead be motivated by considerations about not rewarding past immorality (assuming that that immorality crosses a certain threshold, e.g., culpable involvement in mass death rather than, say, adultery or smoking pot). I don’t see that Brennan even considers this possibility, much less rebuts it.

A digression: Brennan writes of “the presidency,” but I assume that he means any electoral office, including everything from municipal judge to American presidency to prime ministership, etc., including offices whose perks are enormously large. It’s an odd feature of Brennan’s book that while its topic is “the ethics of voting” as such, his focus is almost exclusively American, as though American voting were the paradigm of the phenomenon of voting as such, and as though empirical work on American voting generalized to voting everywhere. I raised this issue in an editorial context with one of the contributors to the Reason Papers symposium (not Brennan), who told me that as a social scientist it was his view that the default position is that empirical work on American politics ought to generalize to politics everywhere unless it can specifically be proven that it didn’t generalize to some particular context elsewhere. In other words, if Jones cites a study on American voting patterns, Jones can, absent contrary evidence, assume that the American voting patterns generalize to Pakistanis, Indians, Italians, or Palestinians. Generalization from the American case is the default rule. That strikes me as a pretty bizarre methodological assumption, but I’ll let the bona fide social scientists fight over it.

Brennan devotes one more paragraph to the topic, but as far as I can see, it merely elaborates on the conclusion Brennan thinks he’s established in the preceding passage.

So character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce. To what degree good character and good policies are correlated is largely an empirical question. If someone is morally corrupt, there is a pretty good chance he will use the power of the state for personal benefit rather than to promote the common good. Yet a virtuous politician with a powerful sense of justice might still be deeply misguided and committed to all sorts of counterproductive, harmful policies. Having the right values is not sufficient for making good policy, because it requires social-scientific knowledge to know whether any given set of policies is likely to achieve those values…If there is good evidence that a politician is likely to enact harmful policies, one should not vote for her (without sufficient reason) even if she is a good person. Voting on the moral virtue of a candidate counts as good voting only to the extent that the candidate’s moral virtue is evidence that she will enact good policies.

(1) My first and most basic comment on this passage is that it doesn’t address the objection I’ve raised, and doesn’t address what seems to me the most obvious objection that could be raised.

(2) My second comment is that it doesn’t cohere very well with the preceding passage. The first passage told us that voting for character was “to a significant degree” voting for the wrong reasons. The second passage tells us that voting for character can be voting for the right reasons under certain circumstances, and it’s an open empirical question to what degree good character and good policies correlate.

So which is it? If it’s an open question whether good character and good policies correlate, they might well correlate, and there are (as Brennan himself seems to admit) commonsense reasons for thinking that they do correlate. If so, why is voting for character “to a significant degree” wrong? Why is it wrong at all? And how can we know to what degree it’s wrong if it might turn out to be right?

Perhaps Brennan means to say that we don’t know whether it’s right, and if we don’t, it can’t typically be epistemically justified to use character as a basis for voting since no one has the social scientific evidence in hand to demonstrate the relevant correlations. But since he himself admits that there is plausibility in the idea that character and policy are correlated, it’s not clear that the claim about epistemic justification follows. Is p only epistemically justified in political contexts if we have a peer reviewed study (or set of them) showing us that p is the case? If I infer that a habitual liar and promise-breaker will be an unreliable implementer of good policies, is that inference epistemically unjustified? Why isn’t banking on a “pretty good chance” good enough?

I don’t mean that there’s an outright contradiction or inconsistency here; I mean that there’s a failure of exposition that leads to an obvious and unresolved puzzle in the reader’s mind about what Brennan is saying. The failure of exposition arises from the legalistic character of Brennan’s writing: we’re told that something is wrong “to a significant degree,” but not told what that phrase means; later we’re told that the issue is empirically undetermined, but we’re told one contestable claim is highly plausible. From one perspective this looks like very careful, rigorous writing, but from another it looks like a confusing way of covering all the bases so as to avoid being held to any particular claim; it also seems to put the author in the position of dialectical victory no matter what objection is made, simply because the claims in the text are so elliptical that they can be made to say anything that the author wants them to say–without saying anything a reader can pin down.

(3) Third comment: there is such a thing as epistemic virtue. Why not consider the possibility that we ought to vote not on the basis of predictable policies per se, nor on the basis of character minus epistemic virtue, but on candidates’ moral plus epistemic character? I’d be curious to know the state of the social science literature on this subject. What evidence is more easily and effectively available to voters–information about a candidate’s epistemic virtue, or information about the predicted outcomes of the policies he can be predicted to enact during x years of a term when the issues he faces are themselves partly unpredictable? Having the right values may be sufficient (or as close to sufficient as matters) for making good policy (or at least for predicting good policy) if the values in question are both moral and epistemic.

(4) If there is good evidence that a politician is likely to enact harmful policies, perhaps one should vote for her as long as she is a good person, the other candidate is an evil person, and the harmful policies are not that harmful. The preceding claim seems incompatible with Brennan’s thesis, which entails that we ought not to vote for politicians who will enact harmful policies simply because the other candidate has a bad character. Brennan adds the parenthentical “without sufficient reason” in the penultimate sentence of the passage as though to include the Modi-like case I have in mind–in which case my Modi-like case wouldn’t be a counterexample to his thesis, but something he’d already thought of, and carefully baked into the thesis ab initio.

But Brennan’s parenthetical seems inconsistent and ad hoc. Either Brennan’s point is that character is relevant to voting (only)** when it is a proxy for future policy, or not. If the first disjunct is the case, Modi-like cases are a counterexample to Brennan’s view. On the other hand, if we go by the second disjunct, i.e., if there can be sufficient reason to vote for character when character  is not a proxy for future policy, it is unclear what Brennan has been saying in this section of the book, or why he thinks what he has said is a response to the objection under discussion in the section. If “voting on the moral virtue of a candidate counts as good voting only to the extent that the candidate’s moral virtue is evidence that she will enact good policies,” the “only” implies that there cannot be a reason for voting on the moral virtue of a candidate when there is no evidence of a connection between character and expected policies.  [And if there cannot be a reason, there cannot be sufficient reason. Hence the reference to “sufficient reason” is incoherent.]*

On the whole, though I generally agree with Brennan’s thesis in The Ethics of Voting, and regard it as an important contribution to the literature, I’m not crazy about the way in which he deals with objections in the book. The issue of character-based voting is merely a case in point, but in my view a clear one. Though one blurb for Brennan’s book describes it as “beautifully clear and eminently readable,” this particular section is neither. I don’t think the failure is mine as a reader but his as its author.

*I added the bracketed sentences a few hours after I originally posted this.

**Added for clarification’s sake a day after the post went up.

Postscript, October 9, 2014: A belated afterthought: doesn’t Brennan’s view entail that voter disenfranchisement of convicted felons is only justified to the extent that being-convicted-of-a-felony is a proxy for high-likelihood-of-wrongful-voting by the felon? After all, Brennan’s view is that the relevant issue as regards the right to vote is always the voter’s epistemic justifiedness or competence (on a rather narrow understanding of competence that is operationalizable and excludes, e.g., “softer” moral considerations considerations of empathy, etc.) That is the motivation for Brennan’s rejection of character-based voting.  But there is nothing about being a murderer, rapist, or robber that a priori excludes competence or epistemic justifiedness in the relevant sense. So it seems to follow on his view that felons ought not to be disenfranchised qua felons. They ought to be enfranchised, regardless of their crimes, and we ought then to give them a chance to become competent voters. Since felons currently lack the right to vote, they haven’t had practice either at voting or at acquiring the necessary skills for it. But dispositionally, they might be fantastically competence under the right conditions. If they can achieve Brennan-competence (once we arrange the remedial conditions), they ought to be allowed to vote. Right? Practically speaking, that would be a bit of a headache, but such considerations don’t otherwise faze Brennan (consider the practical headaches of administering a nationalized poll test, though to be fair, we do have precedents to work from, e.g., the NAEP Civics Assessment) so why not?

Postscript, December 8, 2014: Here’s an excellent background essay, by William Dalrymple, on the Modi phenomenon, written for Britain’s New Statesman in May 2014, well before the elections that brought Modi to power. It’s journalism at its best, and has a richness that no thought-experiment could hope to have.

Postscript, December 9, 2014: This article in The New York Times, “Modi’s Campaign Stop in Kashmir Is Notable for Lack of Unrest,” provides some useful specification of the point I’m making in the post. For one thing, note that the real Modi’s behavior resembles that of the hypothetical Modi I describe: he’s not been alarmingly nationalistic or anti-Muslim, and he’s promised (perhaps credibly promised) policies that advance the economic prospects of Kashmiris, including the poor. And yet, the article ends, unsurprisingly, with this:

But as the crowd filed out afterward, a knot of well-dressed men stood nearby and watched with smoldering eyes.

“I didn’t go, because that man is a criminal,” Ahtisham Shah, a 40-year-old manager at the local office of a telecommunications company, said of Mr. Modi. “He still has to answer for the massacre in 2002.”

Asked if any of them would vote in the next round on Sunday, all five men shook their heads.

“To hell with India and to hell with Pakistan,” said Basharat Ahmad. “Kashmir is an independent country.”

The guys with the smoldering eyes aren’t voting because there’s no credible anti-Modi candidate to vote for, and, as they see it, any vote is a vote for India anyway. But ignore both things for the moment. Imagine that there was an anti-Modi candidate to vote for, and imagine that the smoldering-eye guys put aside their “to hell with India and Pakistan” attitude long enough to vote. (I’m not giving advice; I’m just imagining the possibility.) Should they, as per Brennan’s suggestion, not vote on character, even if the candidate in question “has to answer for the massacre in 2002”? Better yet: should we, as per Brennan’s suggestion, regard them as wrongful or incompetent voters if they do? Should they be required to pass a Brennanite competence test before being regarded as competent to vote for or against Modi? Isn’t there something nearly obscene about the suggestion that they should be disenfranchised for their failure to pass a Brennanite poll test?

My answers: they should vote on character; we should not regard them as wrongful or incompetent for doing so; they should not be required to pass a Brennanite competence test as a necessary condition of being considered competent; there is something obscene about Brennan’s suggestion (even if, as he likes to brag, he managed to make the suggestion in a well-known “peer reviewed” philosophy journal: I have to wonder how many of Brennan’s “peers” at Phil Quarterly were Indian or Kashmiri Muslims).

If Brennan didn’t intend any of the preceding conclusions in The Ethics of Voting, he might want to make that explicit, but nothing about the text of the book or any of the articles of his that I’ve read excludes my interpretation or even considers the possibilities I’ve raised.

Postscript, March 28, 2015: Reports are now coming out of India that suggest I may have been too charitable in my predictions about the situation of Muslims in Modi‘s India, not that that affects my argument at all.

Postscript, March 30, 2015: OK, so I guess I was being really over-charitable to Modi.

Postscript, April 27, 2015: I find it depressing that Barack Obama has chosen to write a laudatory essay on Modi for Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” issue (April 27, 2015). Frankly, I find George Wallace’s moral rehabilitation more impressive than Modi’s. The rehabilitation doesn’t stop Wikipedia for telling us (accurately) that Wallace is “remembered” for his segregationist stance (not his subsequent rehabilitation). Meanwhile, this is Obama on “Narendra”:

When he came to Washington, Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect. Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than 1 billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world.

Yes, they can.

Postscript, November 27, 2015: The controversy over Donald Trump and the post 9/11 celebration rumors induces me to revisit the topic of Jason Brennan’s critique of character-based voting (see here as well). Also relevant (though perhaps less clearly so) is some of the commentary on the recent elections in the Bihar province of India, where Narendra Modi’s BJP was unseated by its rivals. In thinking about both controversies, it belatedly occurs to me that Brennan is operating with either an overly narrow or an equivocal conception of “governance.” Go back to the last passage of Brennan’s that I excerpted. It begins like this:

So character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce. To what degree good character and good policies are correlated is largely an empirical question.

The second sentence seems to presuppose that good governance is reducible to the enactment of good policies, so that if a judgment about character is indeterminate with respect to the enactment of good policies, it’s irrelevant to judgments about whether to vote for the candidate in question. I’m not sure how Brennan understands the term “policy,” but on the ordinary understanding of the term, good governance isn’t reducible to the enactment of policies. It certainly can’t be the case that “good governance” can be understood by this formula:

S engages in good governance if and only if, for every policy P that S enacts (or proposes or broadly speaking facilitates), P is a good policy.

What about the good policies that S fails to enact? Is the failure to enact or propose (etc.) a policy a failure of policy on Brennan’s view? Charitably read, I think he’d say “yes.” At any rate, his view doesn’t prevent him from saying “yes,” so I’ll give him that.

But what about actions unrelated to policy? Here, it seems to me, he faces a real problem. His view seems to be that either a politician is in the business of enacting/refusing to enact policies, or he’s not on the job at all. But this strikes me as a reductive and oversimplified conception of politics.

Arguably, some of what political leaders do is essentially discursive. They talk to us, and often this talk has little or nothing to do with policy–or at least need not have much to do with policy. In their discursive capacities, politicians play (or as I see it, ought to play) the role of public intellectuals: they comment authoritatively on matters of public concern in a responsible way. Arguably, in doing so, political leaders also serve as models of civic virtue: they don’t just comment authoritatively on matters of public concern, but deal with those matters in ways that self-consciously exemplify a concern for truth and justice in public affairs. They give speeches, they answer questions at press conferences, they visit distressed places under their jurisdiction, they interact with people in a face to face way, and they’re recorded as interacting with people in that way. This isn’t just PR or show business. It’s a form of interaction that’s essential to leadership. In other words, a successful politician isn’t just a technician or policy wonk, but a leader–a public figure who functions as a moral exemplar, at least in certain limited respects. And good governance isn’t just policy wonkery; it’s leadership.

So character is bound to be relevant to governance whether or not it’s relevant to policy. The details of a person’s sex life may or may not be relevant to being, say, President of the United States or Prime Minister of India. But a person’s attitude toward (say) race relations certainly is relevant to both offices, whether or not those attitudes are proxies for any policy that the relevant individual proposes, enacts, or doesn’t propose or enact. The next president of the United States might well conclude that no new policies of any kind regarding race need to be enacted during his term. Suppose ex hypothesi that this is the correct decision as a matter of policy. Suppose ex hypothesi that the president successfully plays the political game so that he gets his way, and no policies are passed. That is ex hypothesi the optimal policy outcome, but it’s not the end of the story: it certainly matters how he pulls it off, e.g., how he defends his decisions, and how he deals with critics.

Once we cross a certain threshold, an asshole is not a good leader, and not a practitioner of good governance, even if he enacts the greatest policies in the world. (I’ll grant that we have to tolerate some degree of assholishness in almost any political leader, but even in politics, there’s such a thing as crossing the Asshole Rubicon, and once we do, all bets are off. Bright lines may be hard to draw here, but I think it’s obvious that Modi and Trump crossed the Rubicon a long time ago.) This is a subtly different point from the one I had originally made. My original point was backward-looking: having crossed a certain threshold, we shouldn’t reward wrongdoers with the perks of political office given their past misdeeds. My present point is present- and forward-oriented: we shouldn’t regard character merely as a proxy variable for predictions regarding policy-enactment, narrowly understood. We need to employ a broader conception of governance than that.

The topic of assholes brings me to Donald Trump (and Narendra Modi). Put it this way: imagine that Donald Trump becomes president, but that (miraculously) while in office, he changes his tune and enacts perfectly reasonable policies, even with respect to Arab and Muslim Americans. But imagine that he continues to comport himself as he currently is doing. Would he make a good president? No. His current comportment would undercut his claims to good governance even if he was enacting the right policies, and declining to enact the wrong ones. My point is not that ill comportment would undermine the policies per se, but that demeanor is an autonomous desideratum in a political leader, and that judgments of character are, in an obvious way, a proxy for it. You can’t be a good leader if you systematically disrespect and insult the people you govern, even if you enact the right policies in the process.

Incidentally, in saying that good character and good policy-enactment is an empirical matter, Brennan seems to be implying (as he often does) that identification of the correlation is a matter of consulting double- or triple-blind peer review social science studies. But if that’s what he means, he needs to deal with some obvious but unacknowledged questions.

First of all, there are many, many situations in life in which we have pre-scientific beliefs but no scientific studies to consult on the matter. Is his view that in every such case, we should simply ditch our pre-scientific beliefs on grounds of unreliability? Or is it sometimes permissible to use the pre-scientific beliefs as a guide to action? The first claim is really implausible, but the second claim sits uneasily with his rejection of character-based voting. He himself admits without consulting “the social scientific literature” that “[i]f someone is morally corrupt, there is a pretty good chance he will use the power of the state for personal benefit rather than to promote the common good.” Well, yes, that’s a matter of pre-scientific common sense. But what social scientific literature proves that it’s true? What social science literature has ever taken the population of “someones” as its sample?

Second, we know that a great deal of social science is unreliable. (Much of it is trivial as well.) To what degree, then, can we assume a priori that social scientific findings are, regardless of subject matter, more reliable than pre-scientific beliefs? I don’t see any reason to think that social scientists have the inside track on the nature of moral virtue. If they don’t, I don’t see any reason to think that their findings are always more reliable than pre-scientific beliefs on questions related to virtue.

Third, Brennan exaggerates the univocality of social scientific findings. Social scientists disagree with one another in both interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary fashion. Unless Brennan can show us that one branch or sub-branch of “social science” has a monopoly on the truth about politics, the appeal to social science strikes me as a bit of dogmatism and a bit of intimidatory hand-waving.

Since Brennan admits that character is something of a proxy for judgments about good governance, but also admits that it has variable weight, and can’t exclude the possibility that it sometimes might be highly weighted, and has no principled reason for preferring global reliance on social science over pre-scientific beliefs, and has an overly narrow conception of governance, I conclude that he lacks a coherent objection to judicious character-based voting. (Proviso: Brennan has a new book that’s either forthcoming or just recently out from Princeton University Press, called Against Politics. For obvious reasons, I haven’t read it, so I don’t know whether he discusses any of what I’ve said in this post there.)

Postscript, December 10, 2015: This critique of Trump is useful because it very clearly enumerates moral defects of Trump’s that aren’t necessarily proxy variables for predictions about policy.

In the article, Hillyer argues that Trump has a long record of undermining or abusing those weaker than him who get in his way. To the extent that Trump hasn’t broken any laws, that gives us a clear inference to the conclusion that Trump is immoral in his personal/business dealings, but yields no clear predictions about any particular policy conclusion. Hillyer goes on to argue that Trump mistreated his workers, but even if we grant that, we can’t infer that Trump’s economic policies would necessarily slight workers; after all, Trump is sufficiently opportunistic to change his tune and plump for pro-worker legislation.

Suppose you’re against eminent domain. Can we infer from Trump’s reliance on eminent domain that Trump would favor the expansion of eminent domain as a matter of policy? No, not really. Given his opportunism, Trump could just as easily restrict eminent domain if he found that desirable.

Maybe all of this proves that we shouldn’t vote for Trump because his impulsiveness and opportunism would make for bad policy. Maybe, but to be consistent, a defender of Brennan’s thesis would need to adduce social scientific evidence to suggest not only that impulsiveness and opportunism make for bad policy, but that they make for worse policy than intentionally aiming at bad policies (cf. Hillary Clinton, at least as viewed from a libertarian free market perspective). Note that this social science couldn’t just leave its findings at some set of generalities; it would have to be sufficiently tailored to the Trump vs. Clinton option to allow us to decide between them. I’m skeptical that any existing social scientific literature can yield such a conclusion.

The real reason why we shouldn’t vote for someone with a Trump-like track record is that electing someone to political office confers a reward on the person, and justice forbids rewarding someone’s past malfeasance whether or not the past malfeasance is a proxy variable for the person’s enacting bad policies in the future. In short, we shouldn’t vote for a Trump-like or Modi-like candidate simply because they don’t deserve our votes.

Postscript, December 12, 2015: More on the same theme. Consider Megyn Kelly’s now-famous misogyny question of Donald Trump back in August. The latter half of her question had an indirect sort of connection to policy (roughly, “how do you answer the charge that you are part of the war on women?”), but the first part did not. After quoting some of Trump’s remarks, she asked, “Does that sound [to] you like the temperament of the man we should elect president….”? (my emphasis).

As I see it, the first half of the question would have been entirely fair and appropriate on its own, even without the tie back to policy. Arguably, an avowed, explicit, egregious misogynist does lack the temperament of “the man we should elect president” even if he promises do great things for women (as Trump did, in answer to Kelly). Other things equal, misogyny of Trump’s variety ought to be a reason for voting against him (or not voting for him), whether or not the misogyny predicts any particular policy position he might take as president.

Suppose that other things aren’t equal, however. It’s an interesting question what a voter should do if faced with an out-and-out misogynist whose policy positions are, all things considered, appreciably better than the non-misogynist. To keep things relatively simple, imagine a pro-choice misogynist running against an anti-abortion non-misogynist (and suppose ex hypothesi that abortion ought to be legal). Unless you take avowal of an anti-abortion position to be prima facie evidence of misogyny on its own, I’d be inclined to say that the pro-choice policy position trumps the misogynistic defect of character, so to speak. Of course, if you regard an anti-abortion position as evidence of misogyny, then the choice here is between two misogynists, so that the dilemma is resolved from the outset. But though I’m pro-choice on abortion, that approach seems implausible to me.

Postscript, December 26, 2015: So Modi “surprises” us again, though this move comes as a less of a surprise to me than some of stuff I’ve described in the postscripts above. Given Modi’s character, however, it’s hard to interpret: is it a sincere step forward, or just play-acting? It seems obvious to me that one can’t easily disentangle the policy-related issue involved here (discussed near the end of the article) from an issue of moral character: is Modi honest or trustworthy? If he is, his trip to Lahore seems like a step forward in Indo-Pak relations. If he isn’t, there’s no way to know where he stands on policy, because we can’t trust anything he says or does.

Brennan might claim that the preceding observation is consistent with the letter of his claim in The Ethics of Voting (as it is), but I would say that it contradicts the spirit of his claim: if  judgments of intellectual character are relevant to virtually every prediction we make about a candidate’s prospective policies, it makes good sense to vote for intellectually virtuous (honest, intellectually responsible, non-demagogic, etc.) candidates, and makes good sense to figure out whether a given candidate is in fact intellectually virtuous (honest, responsible, non-demagogic, etc.).Other things being equal, we should vote for the intellectually virtuous candidate, the more the virtuous the better.

If so, it makes no sense to come out against character-based voting, pointlessly adding the proviso that character-based voting is OK as long as it’s relevant to policy. How could a candidate’s honesty, candor, probity, conscientiousness, accuracy, trustworthiness etc. be irrelevant to policy? We might (accurately but in this context a little tendentiously) call those policy-relevant traits of character, and think of them as the policy-makers’ analogue to the intellectual virtues required to do good science. If policy-relevant traits of character are always relevant to policy, then a ban on character-based voting that allows for them is either toothless or misleading or both.

Thanks to Faisal Jilani and Aftab Khawaja for the discussion on Modi that inspired this post, and to Fawad Zakariya for driving home to me the moral significance of what happened in Gujarat. The usual caveat applies.