Odds and the Moral Obligation


Merely disagreeing with the way another person plans to vote isn’t tantamount to questioning that other person’s morality. Insisting that “It’s morally imperative to vote my way” or “Those voting differently from me are _____” where _____ is some sort of moral flaw (preening, cowardice, squeamishness, etc) isn’t just disagreeing with how others plan to vote, though.

I look at the question, “Do the odds in my state of my vote flipping the election to the victor give me a moral obligation to choose between the two leads?” as a prudential question that depends on a judgment call about those odds. Knowing the lottery-like nature of those odds, typically even in swing states, I can understand anyone answering, “No.” I can also understand those in swing states answering yes. Or anyone answering yes for himself, if entering the lottery for the victor, even with the smallest odds imaginable, is important to him. Where to set bounds like “so close to zero it may as well be” is always a judgment call in decision making, not something that can be established by mathematical proof.

Some consider being willing to bet on the long odds for their horse as part of their moral health, as part of the chutzpah, the audacity integral to leading a morally satisfying life. I don’t quarrel with that, no matter the horse chosen (whether Trump, McMullin, or another). Others, though, will view the long odds of their vote deciding the victor as too long to prioritize, and will choose to do something else. That’s not to say these others lack audacity, just that their audacity will be used for other ends.

In this recent exchange, Professor Rahe and I seemed largely in agreement,

Paul A. Rahe:

Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

Paul A. Rahe: There is great moral significance to irresponsibility, and it is irresponsible not to calculate the likely consequences.

Indeed. These numbers are somewhat outdated, so should not be taken verbatim, but they do ballpark the likely (and lottery-like) odds of a person’s vote being decisive depending on state, which should be what you want, if you’re into likely consequences.

When it comes to likely consequences, we cannot just factor in which outcome might be more desirable, but also how likely our efforts are to influence the selection of outcomes.


although Rahe is voting Trump and I am not. This strikes me as quite reasonable. Not only do we live in different states, with his much more in play than mine, but we may also make different judgment calls about how to treat the small odds typically involved in voting.

Many Trump supporters, if asked, will concede that voting Trump is less of a moral imperative in non-purple states. Many of those planning to vote neither Trump nor Hillary will concede that, had they lived in a purpler state, they might have chosen differently, in those circumstances feeling obligated to choose between the two leads. These mutual concessions betray much more moral agreement than any tendentious rhetoric preceding such concessions might suggest. Such concessions acknowledge not only the moral prudence of choosing the lesser of two evils, but also the moral prudence of frankly acknowledging the likelihood that our personal choice might have little to do with the outcome.

Those pressuring you to vote as if your vote were the decisive one are asking you to ignore reality – the reality of what the odds of your vote deciding the victor really are. Those who claim the low odds of their vote deciding the victor are small enough to make using their vote for other purpose the higher priority can only decide that for themselves: they cannot shame you into not betting on casting a vote for the victor.

Many of us are already decided. Some very good, thoughtful people I know are still not decided; or, if their mind is mostly made up, they still reserve the right to change their mind right up until their ballot is cast. All of us, whatever our decision, are still in this together, and we have more moral agreement on what it means to vote than we might think.

Published in Elections
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  1. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko

    Matt Bartle: Voting is in a weird space where no one’s vote matters directly, but somehow the fact that you get out and vote is indicative of the will of people like you to get out and vote, and then collectively it can matter. It only works if you don’t think about it too much!

    That’s why I think one should vote for the candidate one thinks best qualified and closest to one’s own views regardless of the polls, because:

    1. The odds of my single decision changing the outcome of the election are astronomical.
    2. If everyone like me collectively ignored the polls and voted for the candidate they actually think is best, that candidate might actually have a chance of winning.


    • #31
  2. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    MJBubba:Trump is the (other) most conservative candidate who can win.
    Do you think a Trump Administration would result in a greater advance of Leftist causes than a Hillary Administration?

    Vote for Trump. Stop H.R. Clinton.

    There fixed that.  Yes Trump is absolutely capable of doing more damage to the Republic than Clinton.  He might not do more damage but he absolutely could do more damage.  But no one should vote for Clinton either. No one should ever vote for someone unworthy or incapable of doing the job of President.


    • #32
  3. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Some pomocon thoughts on what the likely outcome of the election will be & what the likely effects on gov’t.

    • #33
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