I have read this very useful answer which suggests that the moral responsibility of an individual voter for the actions of a politician they voted for, is limited.

However, the comments on that answer point out that the same logic does not necessarily hold for voters as a group; that a group of voters may be considered morally responsible for the action (or inaction) of the politicians they vote in. For example, as pointed out in a comment by Mew, "then Australia could vote in a self-confessed war hungry, racist, human hating government, and all citizens say they are not to blame."

Suppose you divide voters into two categories, such that category A includes the majority of voters in an election that appoints a single politician by majority vote. Are members of category A as a class considered morally responsible for the political consequences of that election? Are they "more" responsible than people not in category A?

This is a general question, but it was inspired by this concrete instance of such an argument by Doug Spoonwood:

The inequalities in America such as male students having to register for the Selective Service System to get student loans remain because politicians haven't had done anything about changing them. The voters have not sought for the politicians to affect such changes. The majority of voters in every federal election since 1966 have been women. Thus, one can reasonably maintain that women as a class have more responsibility than men as a class for these inequalities remaining.

  • Your third paragraph makes me think of: if there are three groups A, B and C with resp. 40, 30 and 30 members, and [the politician linked to] group A gets the power - are members of B and C responsible for his actions? They could have prevented it by grouping together.
    – user2953
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 8:21

1 Answer 1


This is actually quite an interesting problem, unique to the modern problem of representative democracy itself.

First, modern democratic societies generally hold individual subjects (and their individual "souls") morally and legally accountable. We rule out collective accountability of families, generations, races, as were common in premodern societies. This is why Trump's proposals to kill the families of terrorists or Israel's destruction of the family homes of Palestinians appear repugnant and regressive.

Second, as Trump and Netanyahu might retort, this is the case only within nations and not between nation-states in conditions of war, which then brings in all the complexities of wartime conventions, which even the United States has begun to abandon...if only unilaterally. If, for example, Americans elect a president who kills some 200,000 Muslims in acts of war, then are jihadis justified in targeting American civilians as responsible voters? Conversely, in countries without representative democracy, are citizens less responsible for violent acts of their leaders and militaries?

In the case of representative democracy, of course, voters are not entirely passive. There is an enfranchisement and "act" for which they could be held accountable. Yet they are not moral agents or "wills" continuous with those who represent them. Once power is invested in the representative, moral autonomy is dispersed. Even with powers of immediate censure or impeachment voters can only respond to moral acts already undertaken. There would seem to be a kind of limited and partial culpability. This might inevitably get "generalized" beyond individuals in states of war. Morality does not seem to fit well with modern statistical contexts.

The question of class and revolution is somewhat different. A class may be defined as functioning more or less consciously in its own interests. In republics with serfdom, slavery, extreme property or gender inequality, or other practically limited franchises, a dominant class might well be held accountable for representatives acting in their own interests "legally" but immorally against members of their own nation. Though again with some limits to culpability. In most of the modern revolutions, from France to Russia, the elimination of a dominant, "enfranchised" class was driven more by political-military expediency than moral consideration.

Apart from all these armchair considerations, there are the practical operations of modern capitalist, democratic societies, where the individual is the operative unit, the financial identity, the primary form of representation, and the legal subject. Except for oppribrium and future elections, how does one go about holding voters accountable? Presumably their bad decisions result in various forms of "blowback" or what the Greeks would call the forces of Nemesis. Unfortunately, modern news cycles, national borders, global economies, and media ideologies are such that voters rarely recognize any link between their own votes and later consequences. Where causality is so diffuse or statistical, so too is any sense of moral accountability.

Note: I am not familiar with contemporary political and legal philosophy as it applies to these issues of "representation," so I apologize for the lack of references. I hope others can provide.

  • There is also (I think) a point regarding the limited number of choices in an election. If there are two candidates and you (as a group) believe candidate A has a morally wrong stance on Y, while you consider candidate B's stance on Z to be wrong, are you liable for issue Y if you consider Z more important and vote for candidate A?
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 18:31
  • Yes, it seems there are many problematic variables. The Greeks and Romans explicitly disliked any idea of "representation" and I can now see that this is a moral difficulty. The more I think about it, the more I think it is a conflict between the idea of "identity" in an embodied, moral sense and a modern "statistical" society where "people" can presumably be replaced, doubled, divided, averaged, and represented. But your question does raise it in an interesting way. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 18:50

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