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Purity of Essence


This post is going to sound like under-theorized musing not as some sort of rhetorical device, but because I’m sincerely puzzled by the following question (triggered, obviously, by the last several posts and the comments to them):

Why does what any individual chooses to do with his or her vote in a presidential election ever matter in any way?

It’s obvious that at the most straightforward level of analysis my presidential vote doesn’t “matter,” if “matter” means “have an effect on the outcome.” Statements like “voting for Gary Johnson makes it more likely Romney will be elected” are true at the level of individual action in the same way that the statement “if I (Paul Campos) call up the Denver Nuggets today and ask them for a tryout that will increase the chances that I’ll make the Nuggets’ roster.” Probabilistically, this statement is true. Practically, it’s meaningless, since the odds that I’ll make the Nuggets’ roster no matter what I do or don’t do can quite safely be treated as identical to zero with no loss of practical predictive value.

I’ve sometimes wondered if this truth in the context of national elections creates some sort of collective action problem or paradox, at least in terms of any vaguely utilitarian framework of analysis, since the utility of casting a vote to any individual voter is surely negative, unless one starts tacking on caveats about psychic benefits, the potential secondary effects of otherwise completely impotent social gestures and the like.

Following such a line it’s possible I suppose to make arguments about how one’s individual vote, and in particular one’s public posture regarding that vote, could have various ripple effects that went far beyond its immediate practical effect on electoral outcomes, which again is always and everywhere pragmatically identical with “none whatever.”

Indeed without such an argument, it’s hard to see how any individual vote in a presidential election is ever anything more than the kind of “pure” (which is to say in practical terms completely ineffective) act of self-expression which those who self-consciously engage in casting protest votes are often derided for engaging in.

Continuing . . . I personally don’t believe in utilitarianism as either a descriptive or normative matter, so I don’t think a utilitarian justification for individual voting behavior is necessary. But I doubt one can be successfully maintained.

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