Author Archives: Jason Brennan

Book Announcement: The Ethics of Voting

The Ethics of Voting

Hi everyone,

I’m pleased to announce my book The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press) is now published. You can read the introduction here.

(I get about $3.00 in royalties if you buy it, so here are links to Amazon, which has sold out its initial batch, and Barnes and Noble.)

The main positions I defend in the book are:

1. There’s generally no duty to vote.

2. People can exercise exemplary civic virtue and pay whatever debts they have to society (if there are such things) without participating in politics. Political participation (and knowledge) is nothing special when it comes to civic virtue.


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OPR III.8: Deontic Reasoning

Society depends upon rules—we cannot live together successfully without some shared set of social rules. But what exactly is a rule, and how do people act upon them?Quoting Gaus, “Rules…identify certain general characteristics or properties, and issue directives for actions with these properties. A fully specified social rule identifies (i) a set of persons to whom the prescription is addressed, (ii) a property of actions, (iii) a deontic operator such that actions with that property may, must, or must not be performed and (iv) a statement of the conditions under which the connection between (ii) and (iii) is relevant.” (123)

To illustrate the import of (iv), Gaus brings up two different rules:

1.     In our school, you will not speak without first raising your hand and being called upon.

2.     In our school, you will not pull another student’s hair.

Gaus says that psychological studies indicate that though the surface grammar of these rules is the same, children understand them differently. They understand 1 as merely a conventional rule, which may or may not hold in other schools or other places. Though 2 also begins with “In our school”, they understand 2 as a moral rule, which applies in all places. So they see factor (iv)—the conditions under which the property and deontic operator are relevant—as different between these two rules.

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OPR, Ch. 3.7: The Evolution of Rule-Following Punishers

Social cooperation is good—we do better with it than without. But social cooperation depends upon trust—we need to be able to count on others being cooperative and disinclined to cheat, break the rules, take advantage of us, and so on. In the kinds of game-theoretic situations that best model society, cooperation and conformity to useful social rules will form a stable equilibrium provided people possess a strong enough conditional preference for following such rules, i.e., provided they prefer to cooperate with cooperators for its own sake, and provided they prefer for its own sake to follow rules when others follow rules.

Gaus asks, “But how could rational individuals develop an independent ‘preference’ or reason to follow a rule?” (103)  He claims to have shown that individual cannot reason themselves into being devoted to such rules, because such devotion might cause them to follow rules even when doing so does not best promote their values. (I am not convinced by Gaus’s arguments; I’ll say more on this below).  We could just posit that people have a preference for following generally-followed rules, but this is unsatisfying, even if it turns out to be true. (Cf: Some economists explain voter turnout—which seems irrational—by positing that voters just have a preference for voting, much like some people have a preference for playing golf. This is unsatisfying, even if true.)  The preference for conditional rule-following is widespread, so a satisfying account would explain why this is so, rather than leave this as a happy accident of human psychology. To explain this preference, Gaus turns to sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields.

People do not simply have a preference to cooperate and follow generally-followed social rules. They also have a preference for punishing defectors, even at their personal expense. For an instance, consider the ultimatum game (see here: If the second player in the ultimatum game had entirely non-tuistic preferences and were indifferent to social rules, we’d expect her to accept whatever money she gets. But, in fact, the second player tends to reject low offers from the first player, thus losing a potential monetary gain. One common explanation for this behavior, and similar behaviors in related games, is that players prefer to punish bad behavior from other players, even at personal expense. (Some economists might be inclined to say that if a player prefers to punish defectors, then by definition punishing defectors is part of that player’s self-interest. I am assuming everyone here understands why that’s a mistake.) When Gaus turns to evolution to explain our preferences for cooperation, he will also explain why the preference to punish is widespread.

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Political Competence Bleg

I’m currently writing papers involving the idea of political incompetence, i.e., lacking competence to exercise political power properly.I’d like to start this thread just to collect intuitions, or, if you’re up for it, conclusions of short arguments.  Question: If you accept that there is a distinction between competent and incompetent exercises of power, or if you accept that there are distinctions between people being competent and incompetent to exercise power, how would you best characterize the distinction? What makes someone competent or incompetent?  Etc.  I realize this is a broad question, but I’m looking for a wide range of answers.Here’s an example of something I’d consider political incompetence.  Suppose a jury made up of normal people with normal mental abilities has been charged with deciding whether some defendant is guilty of a crime.  The evidence strongly suggests that the defendant is not guilty.  However, due to certain cognitive/epistemic biases, they reason badly and find the defendant guilty.  Though the jurors are overall competent, they acted incompetently in this instance.Thanks!


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Book Announcement: A Brief History of Liberty

A Brief History of Liberty coverI just wanted to announce the publication of my book with David Schmidtz, A Brief History of Liberty.

It’s something of an unusual book for philosophers, because it’s as much a genuine history (and economics, psychology, law, and sociology) book as it is a philosophy book. I’d summarize our motivation for the project as follows: Dave and I note that historically, philosophers and regular people have used the word “liberty” to refer to a wide range of related things. When philosophers debate what the word “liberty” refers to, or which kind of liberty is most important, they often have a background assumption that liberty, whatever that is, is to be promoted by government in a particular way. But that’s not a good assumption. What role government, or any institution, ought to play in promoting a particular kind of liberty is determined not by conceptual analysis, but by investigating (empirically) what government and other institutions are likely to accomplish. What value any kind of liberty has is also for the most part contingent—we need to see what having certain kinds of liberties does to people, and what happens to people when those liberties are absent. Again, this goes beyond philosophy and requires empirical work. Also, what relationship different kinds of liberty with one another requires empirical work. For instance, while people might debate whether negative or positive liberty is more important, we instead note that empirically, it looks like protecting negative liberty has a long and non-accidental historical track record of promoting positive liberty.


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Tuck on the Rationality of Voting: A Critical Note

Some of you may be familiar with Richard Tuck’s recent book Free Riding. It’s a fascinating and valuable work, but I think much of the central argument, especially about the rationality of voting, is deeply flawed. Anyways, here’s a link to my short critical note on Tuck at JESP: Tuck on the Rationality of Voting: A Critical Note.

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