Sunday, September 18, 2005

The ethics of voluntary disenfranchisement

This is somewhat offtopic, but I have been considering a short, speculative article on the following subject.

In the course of the last ten years or so, I have had conversations with three different people who, for reasons somewhat similar and somewhat dissimilar, had all come to the conclusion that they should not vote. All were citizens perfectly entitled to vote, but each had concluded that he should not exercise his franchise.

The first of these was a priest whom I had met some years before. His reason for not voting was that he believed deeply that he belonged to God, and that if he were to vote, he would be compromising his identity as an intermediary of the universal and identifying God with some particular point of view, nation, ethnicity, people, what have you. He thought in some way that he would be compromising his own position as a man of God, a priest - but he also believed that in some way he would be compromising God.

The second of these men was a journalist. He believed that voting would show that he was biased in some way, and he had concluded that as a journalist, his reponsibility was to the truth, and in order to be faithful to that, he could not allow himself any commitments, at least in politics, which was his subject matter, that would suggest partiality on his part. His professional identity defined him in such a way as to preclude political activities as a citizen. Voting meant taking sides and partiality, and he felt it was not compatible with his profession. In this, he followed (although my conversation with him took place before) statements by some prominent newspaper editor in one of the last elections, that he had not voted in twenty or so years for more or less these reasons.

The third was a very recent conversation, a couple of weeks ago, with a young soldier, an officer in the Special Forces. He was well educated at a top university in political science, very intelligent and thoughtful. He had concluded that he ought not to vote because, he said, in some way it violated the ideal of the military being apolitically subservient to the civilian government in a democracy. (Strikingly, when I asked him if it made a difference that he was a volunteer in an all-volunteer army, he told me it absolutely did - if he were a conscript, he would not hesitate to vote - a subtlety that indicates just how intelligent he was.)

I am interested in exploring the ethical positions taken by each of these men in determining, on a well-considered, well-examined basis, that they ought not to exercise that incident of citizenship, the franchise. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong in each case, although the cases are not precisely similar and what is wrong in each case is not necessarily the same. Moreover, I believe that, explored thoroughly, the exercise sheds some light on the nature and social theory of the profession and professional identity - and, in particular, its limits and limtations.

There is one last case I would propose to consider as against these three, and that is the case of Christopher Hitchens. Christopher is a friend, and several years ago I noted in conversation that he had at some point in his writing crossed a certain line and had begun writing about America and Americans no longer as a foreigner, but as "we." I asked him if it wasn't an indication that, in some fundamental sense, he had thrown his lot in with "us," and really was, and thought of himself, as one of "us" now - and wasn't it time to acknowledge that fact and take out citizenship. And to my surprise, Christopher told me that he had reached that conclusion some time before, and was taking out US citizenship (not giving up his British citizenship, but taking out US citizenship). And in doing so, was taking up the vote. Christopher Hitchens, that is, saw his way to engagement as a citizen and saw that, in some sense, as a moral duty.

There is, it seems to me, something worth exploring in Christopher's engagement that bears on the deliberate - and with the best and deepest of moral intentions - disengagement by these other three men.

Update, Sunday, September 25, 2005:

One way to approach the issue of professional detachment from the incidents of citizenship, if I can put it that way, is to locate the professional stance of each of these examples in a spatial metaphor in relation to the polity. By that I mean that the priest in effect puts himself "above" the fray the politics and the political community; he justifies this on the ground that he represents God, and God would not vote - although, surely, depending on the issues, something things at stake in an election might well be matters of right and wrong on which God would have a view, but leave that aside for now. The journalist locates him or herself "outside" - higher? lower? off to the side? - of the political community. Why? Seemingly for the appearance of impartiality, although in the case of most practicing journalists, who are in fact intensely political in their feelings and views, the idea of not voting as a symbol of disinterestedness smacks of pietism, not authenticity, but we'll come back to that. The soldier locates him or herself in a sense "beneath" the polity - its instrument and servant, with the idea that voting for one party or another, one side or the other, might at least appear to compromise one's willingness to act as a pure instrument of the side you didn't vote for should it win.

There is a lot, I think, hidden in the spatial metaphor, the metaphor of space for social hierarchy in relation to the professions.

But there is also the question of a secret ballot. Would it make any difference if the issue were not voting in secret, but instead publicly leading a party while being part of one of these professions? Is the difference between voting in secret and publicly leading a difference of kind or degree? Why, in other words, does it seem to me that in each of these cases, voting is okay and indeed something one should do, whereas leading a political party is not?

It seems to me there is something worth teasing out of these four moral cases about profession, professional identity, citizenship in a country and the cosmopolitan ideal. Maybe.

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