Thinking Of Others When You Vote: The Right Thing To Do?

“[W]hen, if ever, is it right to vote simply for the sake of your own self-interest?”

That’s the question asked by Gary Gutting, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, at The New York Times’s “The Stone”. His conclusion?

“[C]ontrary to what many think, self-interested voting is sometimes ethically justified.”

Let’s take a look at how he gets there.

He goes about establishing this conclusion by presenting three examples. First he considers the example of poor voters who vote in favor of a bill that would support adequate health care services by taxing incomes over 1 million dollars. He infers that the poor would be right to vote in this way because it would address a service they actually need (rather than something they just want).

He then considers the rich people who would vote on that very same bill. It initially seems like they would be wrong to vote against this bill, Gutting claims. If it turns out that the rich would have to surrender excessive luxuries, it might initially seem like there isn’t a problem involved. Some wants — like my wanting to read in the morning before working or purchasing a six pack of my favorite adult beverage once a week — seem like the sorts of things that it would be unreasonable for us to sacrifice regularly. Other luxuries, such as owning a speed boat or dining at fancy restaurants regularly, seem excessive. In virtue of their excessive nature, it seems reasonable to expect people to give them up if doing so addresses a legitimate, serious need.

However, Gutting raises the following problem:

“[A]lmost all of us are likely to see our luxuries as modest compared with the indulgences of those who are really rich.…Given degrees of excess that far exceed our own, the dictates of morality have little chance of standing up to our capacity for self-deception.”

The problem he raises seems practical in nature. Even if it is reasonable to expect the rich to sacrifice certain luxuries, it is easy to dismiss the charge of excessiveness when comparing oneself to someone with far greater means. And so, he seems to imply, it is unreasonable to expect the rich to vote in favor of the bill.

He considers one final example, this time concerning a bill that would fund an open-to-the-public contemporary art museum. Even if the community as a whole does not benefit from it, use it frequently, or even come to appreciate contemporary art, you could still be justified on voting in favor of the museum on the following grounds:

“I could rightly vote for my own self-interest when I have good reason to think that others should share that interest, even if I know they won’t.”

According to Gutter, we have three examples where voters are ethically justified in voting according to their self-interest. Is he correct? Well, it’s complicated. I think he approaches the issue incorrectly.


If I understand his position correctly, he is viewing the issue primarily from an individualistic standpoint: “Am I morally justified in voting according to my own self-interests?” And this question, as far as I can tell, only takes oneself into account. It does not consider the concerns of others to be entirely relevant. As such, I don’t think the question is appropriate. The right question to ask, rather, is…

“[C]an [we] be morally justified in putting our own interests over the interests of others[?]”

This seems like the relevant question to ask, rather than merely inquiring as to whether or not I am ever morally justified in voting for the sake of my own self-interest. In broad strokes, here’s why:

  1. (Premise #1) When I reflect upon how I should act, it seems my deliberations should start by addressing all the parties involved.
  2. (Premise #2) When I am engaged in moral deliberation, addressing all the parties involved (sometimes) involves considering whose interests deserve priority — mine or someone else’s.
  3. (Premise #3) The scope of people affected by my vote is wide, regardless of its specific range of impact (e.g. international, national, state, regional).
  4. (Premise #4) Since my acting deliberations should start by addressing all the parties involved, and because the scope of my votes’ impact is wide, we have to take these many other people into account when we’re considering how to vote.
  5. (Conclusion) Given Premise #4 and Premise #2, out voting deliberations ought to include considering whose interests get priority.

If my conclusion is true — and I think it is — it implies that Gutting approaches the question incorrectly. Implicit within the conclusion is Premise #4 (and Premise #1), which clearly involves taking other people into account when we’re voting. This entails that Gutting’s approach was flawed from the start. Each of his examples seems to only involve deliberating about how their vote will affect them personally. My argument does not entail the notion that we are wrong to consider how our vote will affect us on a personal level. What my argument does entail is that we would be wrong to just stop there. If we are, indeed, wrong to stop there, then Gutting asked the wrong question. Thus, if my argument is taken to be true, we can conclude that Gutting has approached the issue incorrectly and we should not take that approach to voting.

Having, in my view, established that the relevant question to ask when we’re voting is whether my own interests ought to be prioritized over others’ when I’m voting, the next question is this: is it ever the case that my interests ought to be prioritized over others’ when I vote?


I’ll come back to this on my own later. In the meantime, I turn it over to my readers: what do you think? Are there any instances wherein you should prioritize your self-interests over the interests of those affected by your vote? Even after taking them into consideration?


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