The upcoming presidential election has taken center stage, with regard to national news coverage, for the last several months. I must admit, many aspects of this race were highly interesting to me, or at least that was the case when it all began. The idea of the first female or minority candidate from a major party is historically unique, and represents a great turning point in our nation’s history whichever way that scenario plays out. In addition, the possibility of a McCain presidency, after the disastrous debacle of the Bush regime, has an air of morbid curiosity to it that is at least somewhat newsworthy.
I was not alone in my initial enthusiasm. Discussions about primary results and which candidates would ultimately win was on the tips of everyone’s tongues. But as the politics of hope and progress faded into the usual bickering, name-calling, and general idiocy that is American politics, a familiar sense of apathy and disillusionment took hold. I am not alone in this either, as numerous national opinion polls indicate that apathy among American voters is as traditionally high as ever. I cannot help but wonder, in these trying times with candidates that are at least a little bit stronger than usual, is it a moral failing that I still just don’t care about who wins this election?
Before considering this question, we should make a point that is probably long overdue with regard to talking about anything being “morally wrong.” In this particular case, we are evaluating whether a particular feeling or attitude is morally objectionable in some way. This is distinct from use of the term “wrong” that refers to factual inaccuracies. To say, “Alabama is the state with the greatest land mass” would not be morally wrong, but it would be factually wrong.
This is an important point to make. Emotions or attitudes, despite their commonly ridiculous nature, cannot be factually wrong or inaccurate, at least not in and of themselves. They can certainly be based on facts that are completely wrong, but emotions or attitudes are dispositions, which do not have factual content. Quite simply, how one feels is how one feels. It cannot be right or wrong because it is a representation of an agent’s disposition. It cannot be factually wrong because there is nothing to be wrong about.
We can deduce from this that an attitude of political apathy is not factually wrong, because it is an emotional disposition. This is distinct from whether or not political apathy is morally objectionable. Because the meaning of the phrase “morally objectionable” is complex and open for debate, we will not pursue it here in detail, but rather assume that everyone has some notion of what “morally objectionable” means.
Can something like voter apathy be morally wrong? After all, politics is not morality, strictly speaking. Who one votes for, if one votes at all, is often a pragmatic decision that is responsive to social conditions and a candidate’s personal qualifications with regard to addressing various national problems. Moral questions, like abortion for example, often cloud the water of political discourse. Our best bet may actually be to leave morality out of it.
However, if one believes that part of being moral involves behaving as you would want everyone to behave under ideal conditions, there is something morally wrong about apathy in general, including voter apathy. First, apathy is not the type of attitude or disposition that we want to promote. The apathetic are not very productive, and morality requires active participation. If we want moral responsiveness to be the norm, we ought to discourage apathy in all its forms.
In addition, voter apathy has potentially dire consequences. Widespread apathy leads to low election turnout rates, making the participation of everyone who does get involved that much more valuable. If we want to advance a particular social agenda, namely one of accountability and care for our fellow man, we have a duty to act in a way that is likely to make that happen, including voting for the candidate that shares our values. We also want to avoid giving excessive influence to those that do not share this morally preferable agenda.
Although politics is not strictly moral, and can be confused and muddled by excess moralizing, it still has significant moral implications. Our duties to promote social participation, support positive values, and discourage apathy in general strongly suggest that there is something morally objectionable about voter apathy. Despite the usual political nonsense of American campaigning strategies that this election has degraded into, we must find a way to get involved, get interested, and get ourselves to the polling place, apathy or not.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.