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Goodin and Roberts: The ethical voter

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Goodin and Roberts. 1975. The ethical voter. American Political Science Review 69 (September): 926-928.

In Brief

Assuming 'arguendo' that something like "civic duty" makes it rational for citizens to go to the polls, Goodin & Roberts ask: "How do they vote once they get there?" The simple answer, following the rational choice theory of voting, is that presumably, people go ahead and vote according to their egoistic interests.

However, Goodin & Roberts propose another answer, based on the following assumption: individuals have both egoistic and ethical preferences; their welfare functions have both egoistic and ethical components. Thus, ethical preferences carry some weight.

Main point: If egoistic rational choice makes turning out have no instrumental value, then we shouldn't assume that egoistic (instrumental) concerns drive the voting decision in the voting booth. Put differently: If it is ethical concerns that drive us to the polls, then why can't ethical concerns also dictate our behavior when we get there?

Main Argument

Precisely the same factor that makes it irrational for an egoist to go to the polls makes it rational for a less than thoroughly self-centered man to vote his ethical preferences once there. As one in a multitude, his vote cannot much affect the outcome. Since there is very little he can do inside the poll booth to further his egoistic interests, a man is freed to vote his ethical preferences. The larger the electorate, the more pronounced this tendency (since "civic duty" must be playing a larger role in driving turnout) (927).

Behind their explanation is the logic that if the stakes are low for the voter or if he perceives that his chance of actually altering the outcome is low, he "sighs while choosing the ethical course of action." (927). Because (according to the rational choice logic) a voter's chance of altering the outcome is infinitesimal, he will therefore vote ethically.

Derived Implications

  1. Political parties stand to gain more popular support through a moralizing crusade than by focusing debates on questions of who gets what or when.
  2. Electoral results should be interpreted as reflecting essentially ethical preferences insofar as partisans have structured the debate in such as way as to allow these to emerge.

Comments and Criticism

The problem with their theory is that an "ethical" voter is still trying to 'enact' his ethical preferences--preferences about real world policy matters such as gay marriage, abortion or school prayer. Goodin and Roberts implicitly admit this when they suggest that political parties stand to gain by engaging in a moralizing crusade. Thus, ethical voters do not consider their abstract ethical preferences in the voting booth; rather, they think about their specific ethical or moral preferences. In other words, they are voting for certain ethical policy outcomes (such as The Great Society). Because the voter's individual vote will do nothing to enact his egoistic preferences, then it likewise does nothing to advance his ethical preferences. Therefore, Goodin and Roberts' logic folds in on itself.

Plus, we know from later work that it's not exclusively ethics that bring us to the polls. There's a mix of egoistic and ethical concerns, and this mix is different for different people; see Blais (2000), for example, or Geys (2006).

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Goodin, Robert E (author)Roberts, K. W. S (author)Political TheorySelf-InterestVotingTurnoutProsocial Behavior

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