Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can a Young Woman Vote at Her Swing-State College?

April 24, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Can a Young Woman Vote at Her Swing-State College?


Our daughter just celebrated her 18th birthday and is excited about being able to vote. She is active politically and has strong opinions about many social and political issues. She is considering majoring in political science at the college she will attend later this year. She believes her vote may be more valuable in the swing state where she will attend college than in her home state, which is considered a lock for national and state elections. Is it ethical for her to register to vote at college? Kate H.

My response: Oh brother.

I can’t believe people would ask this question. Where she votes is a legal question. The law establishes where people can vote. If the law allows her to choose where she votes, why shouldn’t she choose where she votes? Does the law say you can choose for some reasons but not others? If the law doesn’t allow her to choose, what difference does ethics make? She won’t be able to do it.

Bringing up ethics is a red herring. She doesn’t think it’s unethical. If you disagree, do you think your ethics are better than hers?

Am I the only one who finds it odd that a mother would write a newspaper questioning her daughter’s ethics instead of sitting and talking to her directly? Do parents consider disagreement bad these days? Why not just talk to her?

The New York Times response:

In any election that involves multiple districts, there are rules about how people who move regularly between one place and another may vote. Many students declare the place where they go to school to be their principal residence and are legally entitled to vote there. As long as your daughter abides by the rules, there’s no ethical reason she shouldn’t join the ranks of the swing-state voters.

But as a prospective political-science major, your daughter might want to interrogate her reasons for doing so. While the vote may be closer where she’s going to college, the probability that the outcome will depend on her vote is close to zero. A study done by a couple of Chicago economists found that just one congressional race since the 1890s was decided by a single vote, and that was in 1910. No presidential election has ever hung on one.

That your vote alone almost certainly won’t determine who wins doesn’t mean that voting is irrational. You can have reason to bet on a highly unlikely event if the payoff is big enough. In one scenario — proposed by the statistician Andrew Gelman and colleagues — you might figure that your candidate’s winning would make the average American about $100 better off. With about 320 million of us, that’s a $32 billion payout! Suppose the chance that your vote will make the difference is one in 10 million. Then if you care about your compatriots, that one-in-10-million chance of making a difference — the $32 billion payout — represents a lottery ticket for which it would be reasonable to pay more than $3,000. Unless you think your time is hugely valuable, it might still be worth buying if you valued the payout at a tenth or even a hundredth of that amount. But many voters — especially the “undecideds” — don’t think that one candidate will create vastly more value than another. They lack this rationale for voting.

So try another argument, proposed by the political theorist Richard Tuck. Elections really are decided by a single vote: the one vote that takes a candidate to the threshold required to win. In this view, there’s a healthy chance that your vote, in combination with lots of others, will be “causally efficacious.” It will be one of those that lifts your candidate to that threshold. Granted, there are plenty of superfluous votes: the ones that took the candidate beyond the threshold. But in a typical election, odds are high that your ballot will belong to the “efficacious” set.

Yet more reasons have been floated. It might be good to vote because it is a civic duty, or because it asserts the importance of the electoral process, or because, win or lose, the number of people on your side sends a message. One reason that I’m drawn to is pretty simple, and it starts with thinking of voting as something “we did,” rather than merely something “I did.”

Imagine you’re playing tug of war. If you (singular) pull on your side and you (plural) win, you are part of the winning team, and you can truthfully say “we won.” And that’s so even if your team would have won without you. This is how shared agency works. If you lose, you have to say “we lost.” But you can also say that you were among the people who helped determine the outcome, even when it isn’t the one you favored. You played a part.

Of course, there are skeptics about all these arguments … as there are about most arguments in philosophy. So, finally, your daughter might bear in mind that voting aside, everything she can do to affect the outcome (like campaigning, which may make more of a difference) she is entitled to do anyplace in the country — regardless of where she collects her mail.

A co-worker with Stage 4 cancer needed to pay for a treatment not covered by insurance that might save or prolong his life. His wife set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money. With just over half the required funds collected, the drive slowed to a halt. His wife soon announced that the treatment was no longer recommended because her husband’s health had declined. She added that she would use the funds to cover home hospice care. Her husband died the next day; I later heard the funds will now be used for funeral expenses.

I asked a couple of donors what they thought of this, and their response was that the money was for the cancer victim and they didn’t care what it was used for, adding that there must be something wrong with anyone (me) who had a problem with this. However, the people I asked had donated roughly the price of a meal, while I donated 10 times that amount.

I am not going to ask for my donation back; it was money I had already put aside for charity. But this turn of events left a bad taste in my mouth. The donors were put in an awkward position, having to trust that the expensive treatment was approved by a doctor (very little information was presented), and I find myself wondering if the whole thing was arranged just to cover the usual costs associated with an illness and death.

Is this a “no harm, no foul” situation? Should I file a complaint with GoFundMe? Or is publishing this account in your column the best move, since it will embarrass no one while serving as a warning to readers about the potential for abuse in crowdfunding mechanisms? Name Withheld

My response: Are your communications skills so poor that you don’t see a way to talk to the coworker? Do you not realize that your attempt to avoid talking to her by going through the web site will likely result in more people learning about your passive aggressive tactics?

Your issue is with her. If you believe you have the communications skills to talk to her and come off sounding reasonable, that’s your best route. If you don’t think you can, then you’ll have to live with the bad taste in your mouth. You sound self-righteous, though, despite others who know the situation better than I do, and self-righteousness rarely comes off as reasonable.

The New York Times response:

Your story reflects difficulties in the way we deal with catastrophic health problems. One is the possibility that insurance companies will deny patients treatments that would actually be helpful. Another, though, is that people are often talked into spending money on treatments that have no value. So we start by not knowing whether the GoFundMe campaign was a good idea. Even if it was, people are often asking for help, as in this case, without knowing what they’ll actually need. And people inevitably make gifts without a full picture of what they’re supporting. It can be genuinely unclear what falls within the scope of the donors’ intentions.

But unlike a deal, in which you give someone money in return for something specific, a gift is not hedged about with conditions. Your co-worker’s illness imposed costs not covered by insurance, and his wife is now using the money to pay the last and saddest of those. Was there an understanding, perhaps implicit, that the money was to be used for only the experimental treatment? That was clearly your impression. So it would certainly have been better, once that option was off the table, for the wife to have offered to return the money to anyone who asked for it. You can see how she made the decisions she did, though, by small steps. Using the money for hospice care seemed like a reasonable extension of medical care; and if hospice care was O.K., why not a funeral? So while I understand your disquiet, I would urge you to extend your generosity about your co-worker’s medical problem to the needs of his grieving widow.

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