How is agency involved in parliamentary democracy?



How is agency involved in parliamentary democracy?

So it seems quite trivial that my vote won't, or never will, make a difference to the result. Does that mean that my agency has no role in the result, be that moral existential or in some other sense?

It seems obvious that if it can make no difference my agency doesn't either. So in what ways, if at all, does parliamentary democracy, specifically its result (rather than e.g. the feelings of victory), figure in any moral or existential philosophy, in terms of agency?


Posted 2017-06-09T02:18:09.353


1"Can't make a difference" is equivocal, and false even on the narrow counterfactual reading: switching your vote may sometimes alter the outcome. Even if not, switching multiple votes will do it, so each of them must "make a difference" in some sense. The flaw in the reasoning comes from the tacit assumption that causation, like responsibility, is distributive, which it is not. X and Y can be a joint cause of Z without either X or Y causing Z on its own. As long as the agency contributes to joint causes it is causally efficacious regardless of individual counterfactuals. – Conifold – 2017-06-09T03:10:54.137

1obviously it's logically possible, that's not what i meant. i don't understand why anyone would misread that. even if we're going to go with your supposed definition of causality, i don't see how that answers the question about 'responsibility'. confusing! @Conifold – None – 2017-06-09T03:20:28.710

1@Conifold i'm finding the trivialisation of what i ask trivial and unnecessary – None – 2017-06-09T03:28:44.663

1just to reiterate, i'm not asking about whether we can say that an individual's agency caused an election result. i'm specifically asking about existential and moral philosophy. e.g. anyway it seems that in Mackie's sense, my vote "causes" nothing. i suppose it may still have in some sense the capacity to do so, but the chances it actually doing so are just negligible. anything is possible etc – None – 2017-06-09T03:44:05.053

1There is no mention of Mackie in the post, or why "non-causing" in his sense should matter more than in some other sense. Even pragmatically, voting alters the behavior of those elected regardless of specific outcomes, and one can increase one's impact by participating in vote drives, advocacy, etc. So your presupposition does not even "seem" obvious as currently phrased. What "its result" or "in terms of agency" stand for is also unclear. Sorry, we can not read what you mean, only what you wrote. – Conifold – 2017-06-09T04:11:57.477

nowhere do i say that mackie is mentioned anywhere, or accuse you of lacking mind reading powers. this is absurd @Conifold my apologies if you don't understand what i'm saying! if you are saying that actually very obviously a single vote will or will sometimes make a difference to the result, then answer the question please! – None – 2017-06-09T19:00:11.643

@Conifold some philosophers would supply definitions which would mean my question contains a mistake, and probably can't be fixed. others wouldn't. that does not mean my question is mistaken, or unanswerable. that's all i meant by bringing up alternative definitions. – None – 2017-06-09T19:27:18.993

Irrespective of definitions, there is a big gap between "parliamentary democracy" in the title and its reduction to a "single vote" apparently intended in the post (but only spelled out in the comments). Commenting on SE is not so much about mistakes as about filling in gaps in posts concerning context and intention, which makes them more answerable. – Conifold – 2017-06-12T01:01:17.503

@Conifold not sure i follow. parliamentary democracy = you get one vote. not sure what you mean – None – 2017-06-12T20:37:27.460

Isn't it obvious that in a democratic system one can exercise influence through a lot more than their "single vote"? Influence, which is obstructed under different political systems, through speech, organization, pressure on elective representatives, etc. And if the "agency" chooses to forgo those options and confine itself to a "single vote" isn't it obviously responsible for making no difference? – Conifold – 2017-06-12T22:12:10.127

@Conifold ah ok that again. I just meant voting, not the whole vile campaign trail – None – 2017-06-12T22:13:56.307

This is why precision and context matter, "seems" and "obvious" are very subjective terms. If you only meant voting then "parliamentary democracy" was a misleading expression, and you can see why your question is perplexing: first you "obviously" narrowed agency's options down to a single lane, and then asked why that lane "seems" too narrow. – Conifold – 2017-06-12T22:25:40.287

@Conifold not an empty question, see below. you'd be hard pressed to show otherwise – None – 2017-06-12T22:31:03.550

The question, as you see it "on the inside", may well be great, that is beside the point. But please in the future try to spell your questions in such a way that we can all appreciate them on the outside too. – Conifold – 2017-06-12T22:46:01.593

@Conifold quixotic – None – 2017-06-12T22:49:45.700



The question is in what way I make a difference through my vote, given that my vote has 0 probability to make any difference in the outcome in the majoritarian or Westminster democracy (term a la Arend Lijphart). This is a question addressed by political scientists, not by political philosophers.

To understand the question, we first need to know the pivotal theory of voting, advanced from the economist front (mainly by social choice theorists). The theory begins with stating that my voting is meaningful if and only if my vote can make a difference. The reason, according to the theory, is that a rational and self-interested person will pursue a course of action only when her agency matters. Her agency is non-existent in a national election (i.e., 0 probability to make a difference). Thus follows from the theory is that it is irrational for her to vote, let alone study the agenda. A lemma of the theory thus is rational ignorance that voters purposefully choose to remain ignorant and not to learn about agenda for the reason of lacking agency in voting.

It has been political scientists who tried to refute the pivotal voting theory. Professor Gerry Mackie at UCSD (my dissertation committee member) offers the contribution theory of voting, according to which voting is instrumental to locate public good, and citizens do aim to contribute to the advancement of the public good. Thus it is rational for citizens to vote. To Mackie, individuals vote not for the reason of pivotness, but for the reason of contribution toward the group effort. A similar contribution idea was also offered by Josiah Ober, Stanford University political scientist and classic literature theorist. Ober elaborates Aristotle's analogy of democracy as a potluck party to argue for the agency as well as epistemicness of democracy.

Political scientists' answer to the question then is contribution, which is involved with agency.

Footnote Aristotle's potluck analogy: When comparing democracy with aristocracy and oligarchy (both are characterized by rule by a few) in terms of wisdom, Aristotle questions which party has more food, a party prepared by money from a few rich individuals, or a party prepared by money from all. Aristotle says that the latter has more food. From this, Aristotle concludes that there is reason to think that the democratic decision is smarter than the others.

Nanhee Byrnes PhD

Posted 2017-06-09T02:18:09.353

Reputation: 3 550

do any philosophers discuss what we can infer from the nature of "making a difference"? – None – 2017-06-11T16:41:15.330

1Action (or agency) theory itself is a big topic in philosophy and so far there has not been an interaction between democracy theory and action theory. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD – 2017-06-12T18:33:18.690


According to this paper, in America, even in the most undecided states your vote has about a one in ten million chance of making a difference, and recently the Electoral Reform Society her in England publish a paper showing how only 639 voters could have actually altered the outcome of the election. So, as you say, it is pretty obvious that your one vote is extremely unlikely to have any impact.

The key question here, then is whether moral agency has any limits on it as the probability it's constituting to the cause of an outcome decreases. Henry Tappan wrote in "The Doctrine Of Will" that when considering the possibility that ones intentions may be frustrated by antagonistic forces, one only need have a greater probability that one's actions will bring about the desired out come than that they will bring about some more negative one.

In the case of voting, the probabilities are so low that almost an scenarios could be devised to justify almost any action, you are just as likely to run someone over on the way to the polling station as you are to bring about the social revolution you're after as a consequence of voting. That might easily present an argument for staying at home.

It is not true to say that voting is a distributive cause unless people vote at random. Presuming people vote according to either conscience or tradition, then the election simply records that state of affairs that existed before it and will continue to exist after it. By voting or not voting you are affecting the accuracy of that record, not the state of affairs itself which will remain unchanged regardless of what you do. Only if that record is at risk of being wholly inaccurate will your vote have any moral impact, and even then one would presume that inaccuracy could only last for a short time before being corrected by the next election, or even a vote of no confidence/civil action before then.

With virtue ethics, it is harder to justify not voting if one of the parties is morally superior as you may consider it a virtue to act in support of them. The "outcome" of your moral agency would then not be the outcome of the election (over which you have little control) but the outcome of the act of voting on your progress towards complying with some virtue. Over that you have a much greater capacity for control and you agency would be unaffected by the probabilities associated with voting.


Posted 2017-06-09T02:18:09.353

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