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Goldman: A causal responsibility approach to voting

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Goldman. 2002. A causal responsibility approach to voting. In Democracy, ed. David Estlund.

In Brief

People vote because they bear partial responsibility for the electoral outcome. Analysis of voting should not focus on expected outcomes, but rather on the (moral or) quasi-moral credit people earn by casting votes.

Perspectives in the literature

  • Economic/rational choice perspective--no reason to vote because costs exceed expected benefit of casting deciding vote.
    • Variation: Parfit (1994) argues that benefits to the entire electorate of electing the superior candidate must be considered as well; each tiny individual expected benefit is multiplied by the group benefit, making it significant.
  • Kantian perspective--categorical imperative: one should vote because one would will voting to be a universal maxim; thus voting becomes a moral duty.
  • Expressivist perspective--voting expresses support without actually affecting the outcome. Like rooting for a sports team or sending a sick friend a get-well card.
  • Causal responsibility perspective--voters make a partial causal contribution to a candidate's election, even if she is not a decisive voter. Also, voting in favor of a winner counts as a greater contribution to victory than abstaining does.

Types of causation

Simple counterfactual view of causation: x causes y if y does not occur without x (inadequate for analyzing voting).

This seems to exclude cases of overdetermination. Who pushes the car out of the snowbank when one too many people helps? In the simple counterfactual view, nobody does, if the loss of one pusher would still lead to the same result. There is no room for partial responsibility in this picture.

INUS view of causation: x causes y if it is an indispensable part of a sufficient condition of y. That is, if x is an Insufficient but Necessary part of a condition which is itself Unnecessary but Sufficient for the result (hence, "INUS"). So if Jones defeats Smith 60-40, and I vote for Jones, my vote is not a necessary part of the condition sufficient for Jones to win (her having a majority) because had I abstained, she would have still won with 59 votes. If the vote is 51-49, my vote is a necessary part of a sufficient condition, but there are other sufficient conditions that would cause Jones to win (overdetermining votes). It is still not clear what role these play. (Note that others generally interpret INUS differently: Even in the 60-40 case, my vote is a necessary part of the various sets of 51 votes which would have been sufficient for Jones to win; therefore, I had a causal role according to the INUS criterion even if my vote was not decisive.)

Vectoral causal systems are like tugs-of-war. Forces push and pull on the rope, whose movement represents the sum of the vectors (positive, negative and zero). There are thus contributing, counteracting and neutral forces determining the outcome. Elections are conventional vectoral causal systems: a vote for Jones is a positive vector in regard to her possible election. A vote against is a negative vector, and an abstention is neutral. You support Jones more by voting for her than abstaining, and much more than voting against her. This seems intuitive.

However, Goldman adds the idea that voters bear quasi-moral "blameworthiness" or "culpability" by abstaining or by voting for the wrong candidate. He has to define the "objectively best" candidate as the one who produces a set of outcomes higher on the preference-ordering of a majority of citizens than the set of outcomes produced by any other candidate. Comment: Goldman's "quasi-moral blameworthiness" model starts to look a little like Rousseau's General Will, in which voting against the GW is not dissenting, but choosing wrongly based on incorrect deliberation. It also seems to resemble the Beauty Contest game, in which players base their responses on guesses about the average response. Is this the idea of voting?


Don't think of simple models of causation in considering voting: their emphasis on decisiveness is misleading. Instead think of a tug-of-war, in which everybody's vector is a factor in the outcome.