Democracy: A Memoir

Weekly Debates

November 3, 2016

Philodemic Room

As the leaves fell and Election Day neared, the Philodemic gathered once more to debate again. This week’s topic: “Resolved: Voter abstention is morally permissible.” On the affirmation, and making his induction, Mr. Itua Uduebo (SFS ’17) of Lagos, Nigeria. On the negation, President Asha Thanki (SFS ’17) of Missouri.

Opening the evening, Mr. Uduebo defined “voter abstention” as “an active decision to not vote without coercion” and “morally permissible” as “socially acceptable.” Mr. Uduebo argued that voting is the practice of expressing one’s views and that voter abstention is a legitimate means of expressing one’s own views. Mr. Uduebo identified two scenarios in which voter abstention is permissible: either as a refusal to participate in a democratic systems as a protest against corruption, poor institutions, or so on; or, alternatively, as a refusal to vote for the lesser of two evils—because the lesser of two evils is still evil. Mr. Uduebo closed by arguing that if the essence of democracy is the power of the individual, then using power through abstention is a legitimate means of exercising democratic power.

President Thanki rose to respond, beginning by stating that using write-ins count as a legitimate form of voting for the purposes of this debate. President Thanki then defined an alternative moral framework for this debate: morally, we are obligated to minimize injustice, or at least our role in it. To that end, we must always vote for the lesser of two evils and cannot choose to abstain simply on principle. She further responded to Mr. Uduebo that we can use a system with which we disagree in order to express our discontent with that system. Furthermore, two things occur when we opt out of voting: first, wrongdoings are made psychologically distant, thus negating our sense of responsibility in the outcome; and second, we forget that all of our actions, including abstention, work to impose values on others—our principles cannot exist in vacuum.

Opening the night of floor speeches, Mr. Musser referenced the principle of conscientious objection developed by his Mennonite ancestors and argued that it is wrong to require somebody to vote if they consider all options to be fundamentally morally wrong. Mr. Zuegel retorted that voters participate in far more than just a presidential election. Mr. Marrow arose to clarify that morality does not mean social acceptance, that being stupid and naive is not the same as being immoral, and that absolute morality is not the same as doing the most good. In response, Ms. Cuppari stated that some Philodemicians are in fact utilitarian. Mr. Ernst expanded the purview of the affirmation by arguing that abstention is justified not only when the candidates are lacking, but also when the structure itself is lacking. Ms. Haag responded that inaction legitimates systems of oppression.

Mr. Mullaney highlighted how informed Georgetown students are relative to the average voter and suggested that our moral obligation is not to vote, but rather to not vote poorly—therefore, an uninformed voter can morally choose to not vote. Ms. Weissman retorted that this is a problem with our education system, not a statement about the morality of not voting. Ms. Li replied that we should not take away the right of low-information voters to not vote by demanding that they make a decision in the absence of knowledge.

Mr. Hinck cited the fact that many have died for our right to vote, and that we ought not flee from that duty, instead taking it upon ourselves to become educated. Mr. Gonzalez argued that, although a moral law should not be based on the 2016 election, nonetheless it must still apply in 2016—and in the context of 2016, not voting seems like a very attractive option. However, Mr. Pullin argued that we cannot divorce our responsibility to society from our decision to not vote—to seek justice for all, we must all vote. Nonetheless, Mr. Easterling replied that if society does not care about an individual’s needs, we cannot expect the individual to care altruistically about society. Mr. McCarthy retorted that throwing one’s hands up is not a valid response to unjust systems.

As she began our nonmember speaking portion, Ms. Elizabeth Gleyzer (COL ’20) argued that citizens must have the choice to opt out of the social contract by not voting. Ms. Diana Chiang (COL ’19) reminded the Society of Desmond Tutu’s statement that to remain neutral in times of crisis is to choose the side of the oppressor. Mr. Jack Brownfield (COL ’20) held the position that “voting for the lesser of two evils” holds candidates only to the standard of being marginally less evil than their opponent. Mr. Yashovardhan Diwan (COL ’17) argued that the incentive to rebel against an unjust system is selfish, even if the complaints are legitimate.

As the Society resumed member speeches, Mr. Ma pointed out that in some non-presidential elections, there is simply not enough information available on candidates to make informed decisions. Mr. Perez-Reyes responded that upholding the subjective freedom of all to determine the essence of their existence requires voting so as to promote the liberties of others. Mr. Tu defended abstention as a means of avoiding the obsession with politics that plagues our society. Ms. Friedmann dismissed arguments about uninformed voting, claiming that such arguments upheld literacy tests as a means of discrimination. Mr. Harden pointed out that in most elections, neither candidate will have perfect stances on social issues, and the affirmation requires everyone to vote for someone, even if both candidates seek disenfranchisement of different groups of voters. But Mr. Rinaudo pointed out that the affirmation is not asking everyone to vote for one of the two major party candidates, but rather simply to vote.

Vice President Fletcher reminded the floor that the negation is not restricting the right of low-information voters to vote, but rather saying that low-information voters who opt not to vote are not morally vicious. Ms. Fisher, citing her identity as a single-issue voter regarding abortion, stated that there is always one candidate who is better than the other. Ms. Cooke discussed the privilege of living in Pennsylvania (huzzah!) from a political perspective. Mr. Aidan Poling (COL ’20) stated that the majority of people who do not vote abstain for practical, and not deeply felt moral, reasons. Finally, Mr. Shuman argued that in some elections, there simply is no good option.

 Returning to the dais, President Thanki made a number of points. First, to change a system, we must advocate through the system. Second, advocating for our beliefs and voting do not present an either/or scenario: we ought to do both. Next, we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves in order to vote, and there is no cutoff for voting based on education level. Finally, not voting means being complicit in injustices which the system seeks to perpetuate. Mr. Uduebo retorted that voting in a morally bankrupt system tacitly accepts the evil of the system. Consequentialism and practicality are not appropriate moral frameworks for assessing voting decisions. The negation holds that someone who does not vote is morally bankruptanything short of this declaration puts someone on the affirmation. Finally, by upholding the power of the people to exercise their freedom to vote however they want to, the affirmation upholds the authentic nature of democracy.

With a vote of 20 affirming, 3 abstaining, and 23 negating, this resolution was negated. Evidently, the Society holds the 45% of all eligible voters who did not vote in the 2016 election in the utmost level of moral condemnation.


Micah Musser

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