I'd like to describe a scenario and understand what sort of general philosophical tools or schools of thought may be used to answer the question one way or another. The scenario involves an individual deciding whether or not to vote in a municipal election.

Suppose I am trying to decide whether or not I should take an hour out of my day on a Tuesday night to go and cast a ballot in the mayoral election. If I vote, I know for whom I will vote. I live alone and can safely assume that no other members of the public will know whether I vote or not. Therefore, my decision has no impact on the votes cast (or not cast) by the rest of the electorate. Given a sufficiently large municipality, my vote will be one in tens or hundreds of thousands. Therefore, the probability that my decision to vote or not has any impact on the result of the election is vanishingly small. For sake of argument, imagine a population infinitely large so that the probability of my vote swinging the result is zero. Therefore, I can safely choose not to vote with no impact on the election itself. Voting has a negative impact on me, as I'd rather not spend an hour doing it.

Here's the question: taken from the perspective of the individual, we see a decision that on the one hand has no impact on society or the decision maker (not voting), and on the other hand has a small negative impact on the decision maker and no impact on society (voting). Therefore, the net utility of voting is lower than the net utility of not voting (if you count the utility of the decision maker, equal otherwise) and it is not ethically wrong to abstain from voting. This notwithstanding, if every individual or many individuals made a decision to not vote following the preceding logic, then there would be a large impact on the election result. Assuming a low voter turnout is of negative utility to the public, if many people decided not to vote then the result would be bad. Therefore, is it in fact ethically wrong not to vote since if many people did it then it would be bad for society?

Thanks for reading my question. I'm hoping to hear your thoughts not just on the example I chose but on the general problem itself. Is an action wrong if it doesn't hurt for one person to do it but it hurts if everyone does? I chose voting simply because the individual impact of one vote can be reduced to almost nothing within a large voting body. If there are logical or philosophical inconsistencies in my question - tear them apart!

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    Hypothetical. I'm an inmate in a brutal prison camp. I'm allowed a choice between the guards in the red uniforms and the guards in the blue uniforms. They pretty much have the same brutal policies but slightly different rhetoric. Do I have a moral obligation to vote? If not, then the only question is the degree to which your current situation differs from being an inmate in a prison camp. It's clear that in the extreme case, you have no obligation to vote, and that voting is entirely pointless. So a better question is: Under what circumstances do you have an obligation to vote?
    – user4894
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 21:29
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    One problem with this question is that it's rather open-ended but at the same time not. At the top, you say you're looking for general philosophical tools or schools of thought may be used to answer the question one way or another. but by the end you're basically using Utilitarian consequentialist methods. Maybe you should qualify that you're asking within that framework (this would make the question more answerable).
    – virmaior
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 1:31
  • I love this question, but @virmaior is right about "general schools of thought" being inappropriate. What you're asking is too specific, even if abstracted: does the calculus of limit approaching zero apply to questions of utilitarian ethics and expected value, or does it challenge our ability to apply utilitarian ethics as a value in these cases? As a challenge to utilitarianism, that would be the sum of your question; as a question about limits in expected values, it's rather specific to that domain.
    – Ryder
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 10:15
  • Taking the limit to infinity is deceptive: the impact of an individual's vote is not zero.
    – Dave
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 16:23

5 Answers 5


To the more general problem, there are cases where people all face the same (or very similar) incentives to not act for the general good, and this leads to bad behavior. See the Tragedy of the Commons for different ways of thinking about this problem.

There are three problems with the particular problem of voting:

The marginal utility of voting/not-voting in your argument is implicitly uniform. Instead, consider what happens as there are fewer people vote: the marginal benefit of voting is actually quite high (one individual vote is more likely to have an impact on the outcoming). So, as fewer people vote, there is increased incentive for more people to vote - this is the opposite of what happens in the tragedy of the commons, where as more people fail to act for the common good, incentives increase to act against the common good.

The argument also assumes that the utility is uniform across members of society, but the utility of voting that we observe is actually very different across people (eg: people who are retired are more likely to vote, people with strong affiliation to a particular candidate or party are more likely to vote, etc.).

Voting is also (mostly) independent - the decision of one person to vote seems to have a small impact on whether others vote (at least, in comparison to the analogous action in the Tragedy of the Commons).

Taking these together, there are stronger arguments for the ethics of voting than "what-if-no-one-did-it" type arguments.


I would say that you don't have to vote in this kind of situation. When the population becomes very big, your vote will have a really small impact.

However in existentialism the answer seems to be different. J.P Sartre, in his book Existentialism is a humanism, say that because you are totally free to chose what you want, you are responsible for it and you engage every other person. It's like you should wish other people to behave like you, and not voting would imply that nobody should vote.

I disagree with this, but I found that it's interesting to have a different opinion. In my opinion, when you do something, like voting, or choosing a political party or not donating money to a charity it is your own choice and it wont change the way other people behave.

  • I think your reading of Sartre is pretty poor in the middle paragraph there, but it's actually closer to an accurate reading of Kant.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 10:58
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    Actually I might have some trouble to translate correctly what I mean. Feel free to correct. Also I recommend this book, as it is really fast to read it and have a first look, even if there is way more explanations in other books of Sartre. And this precise example is discussed in the book.
    – JSFDude
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 12:02
  • People think that they are different from others. In this, they are all the same, and they uniformly arrive at their "independent" conclusions like horde of others such. We don't realize that free will can mean just making the best of what is possible, and so necessarily, many many others will decide exactly the same way. It is a cognitive bias.
    – user16869
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 22:47

Rule utilitarianism is one approach for handling this: if everybody, as a rule, acted in the way that you would naively do to maximize your local, personal utility (i.e. "act-utilitarianism"), then the overall utility would actually decrease, since maintaining democratic governance (I'm assuming that that is good) is necessarily a collective activity.

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    Assume that everyone is like you, and that they will all have the same sterling thought processes. This is what Douglas R Hofstadter called "Re-normalized Rationality" and it cuts through all such questions.
    – user16869
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 22:49

No, it's not ethically wrong to refuse to vote because 1. You may not like any of the choices you have. If fact, in some cases there may be only one 'choice', as when someone runs unchallenged. And 2. You're non-vote still would matter in the sense that it could show your displeasure with the voting system/process in place, for example when an election is known or suspected to be rigged or when you are forced or intimidated to vote (e.g. the now-defunct Soviet Union).

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    This answer does not tie into " general philosophical tools or schools of thought " as requested by the OP.
    – Dave
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 13:48
  • @Dave I respectfully disagree. My response touches on "idealism", "absolutism" and "utilitarianism".
    – tale852150
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 14:06

In a democracy, everyone, like you, has only one vote. The impact on the result of the election, by any one individual's decision is the same. Initially you have only to chose between To vote or Not to vote. If you decide to vote you've choices in the ballot. If you have voted, you become a part of the government, either with the ruling party, or the opposition. If you have not voted, you become a slave of the government. But still the government treats you as a part of itself. If there's a rule, by which people who have not voted are treated as slaves, you will then be forced to vote. Better you vote now and ensure such a rule is never brought into force.

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