Huh. Quite close to the real – there’s power in both!

Covid – 19…

Hmm. More like… covid – Ω. Or, covid – ∞?

Anyways, now more than ever, I get this sense of having… wasted years. Sorry, Troopers. But hey, still keeping ’em horns up \,,/

At Night, Frank Kafka

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, an innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

If all our actions are shaped by luck, are we still agents?

For better or for worse, luck can sweep in from nowhere and alter our lives. You might cross the road and get hit by a car, or you might end up bumping into someone who turns out to be the love of your life. One natural way of thinking about luck is that it happens to us. Things – unexpected and uncontrolled things – happen to us.

What happens to us naturally contrasts with what we do. But, in his paper ‘Moral Luck’ (1981), the British philosopher Bernard Williams conjures the example of a lorry driver who hits and kills a child. The driver didn’t kill the child due to being drunk or driving carelessly. He was just unlucky. In such a case, as Williams later put it in his book Shame and Necessity (1993): ‘The terrible thing that happened to him, through no fault of his own, was that he did those things.’ He hit and killed the child. Luck can do more than just happen to us; it can affect what we do. Or, to put it another way: what we do is not fully in our control.

Williams gave a name to an emotion that can accompany doing bad things through bad luck: agent-regret. This is different from remorse, which Williams linked to doing bad things voluntarily. The driver’s tragedy isn’t that he was speeding or driving carelessly – voluntary things that might arouse remorse; his tragedy is simply that he killed someone. Agent-regret latches on to this. What the driver regrets is that he did it – he killed the child.

The problem with luck isn’t just that it can affect what we do in minor or unimportant ways (though it does this, too); the problem is that it can also affect our actions in life-altering ways. We can imagine the driver feeling a deep and miserable regret that ruins the rest of his life. And it seems that he is rational: he feels terrible because what he did, through no fault of his own, was awful. It is thus deeply unsettling to realise how much luck can affect what we do.

But should we be unsettled? An alternative position could hold that what we do – or what matters in what we do – just is what we control, and the rest is simply stuff that happens in the world. We could regret these things as bad events in the world, but we couldn’t feel agent-regret about the factors beyond our control because they are not part of our agency at all.

The trouble with this position is that so much of what we do seems to depend upon things that we do not control. To raise your arm, you need your body to cooperate; to throw a stone a few metres, you need to avoid a gust of wind. Such an approach inevitably restricts our agency to a sparse domain. Perhaps all that matters when it comes to agency is what we will. This is the view that Williams associated with the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, a view that gives what Williams called ‘solace to a sense of the world’s unfairness’. If agency is restricted to what we sincerely try to do, then the vicissitudes of luck lose their edge. For the unlucky driver who runs down a child, the fact that his conduct was unimpeachable can be a relief and it can set him apart from those who were malicious or reckless. No doubt sometimes we need to take solace here, and we should recognise that a good tree can bear bad fruits.

But this solace comes at a cost. Williams thought that, were we to insulate agency from luck altogether, agency would be a ‘superficial’ concept. This superficiality comes from recognising that the Kantian picture cuts us off from the world. Agency, in this picture, loses much of its power to make an impact on the world. It doesn’t even let us throw stones or raise our arms.

If we think that our impact on the world is an important part of agency, it seems that we must accept that we can act on the world even though the impact we make is partly out of our control. We must accept that what we do depends on luck. As Williams put it: ‘One’s history as an agent is a web in which anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not …’

If our agency extends beyond what we try to do, if it extends beyond what we control, what does it mean to be an agent? A good place to start, when trying to understand this, is from the obvious point that sometimes we try to do something and it happens. But it doesn’t just happen; rather, we have abilities that let us achieve what we want. The trouble is that our abilities are imperfect, fallible, human.

Agent-regret arises when these abilities go wrong, when we try to do something and something else – something bad – happens. The bad things we do are not just restricted to those acts we are guilty of committing, and lamentable agency is not just restricted to our voluntary actions. This is because these abilities can go wrong through no fault of our own; they can go wrong not through misuse, but merely because they are fallible. In mundane cases, you walk through the bar and spill someone’s pint. In more serious cases, you go for a drive and kill somebody.

One could read Williams and come away dispirited, left with a pessimistic view of the world. After all, Williams focuses on regret rather than the happy accidents that can affect our lives. He uses examples such as the lorry driver and draws on heart-rending stories from literature, such as Anna Karenina’s suicide. There is little comfort in his focus on how, even if we are cautious in what we aim to do, we can be felled by a stroke of luck. Williams can be a bleak read. At least the Kantian picture puts our fate in our hands.

But there is also something deeply empowering in Williams’s move away from the Kantian picture. Reflection on luck need not urge us to retreat to the secure but restricted domain of what we fully control; it can reaffirm our potency as agents and encourage our ambition. We can make a mark on the world and sometimes that mark can be a spectacular one. From a work of art to a strike on the football pitch, from the things we write to the meals we make, these things don’t just happen: we have to seek them out and use our skills to bring them about. And they are our actions – marks we make on the world as agents.

Without accepting that we might fail, that we might end up regretting what we have done, we wouldn’t be able to achieve any of these things. There is something richer and more uplifting in recognising this, rather than living our lives in the secure but impotent realm where trying is all that matters.

Jake Wojtowicz

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Teenage bloodbath: the 2010s in review — Idiot Joy Showland

Living forever is so much like being dead.

Teenage bloodbath: the 2010s in review — Idiot Joy Showland

“There’s a sort of Mark Fisher-ish point to be made here. In the modernist 20th century, culture produced novelty: new galaxies, new empires, new images and affects. Now, in the era of neoliberalism, it’s all repetition and pastiche; the best we can do is repeat ourselves. Disney is churning out soulless live-action remakes of its old cartoons at a frightening, industrial rate. These aren’t for children: they’re for people who used to be children, and aren’t any more, but never actually grew up. People who want to remember their childhoods, but this time with lots of CGI…

How Confucius loses face in China’s new surveillance regime

While conceived of and functioning differently in diverse contexts, ‘face’ describes a phenomenon that exists in every human society. Its most basic sense concerns the public presentation and perception of the self. Someone who has face possesses something of positive social value that arises from social approval of a person’s status, action or state of being; someone who loses face has suffered a loss in social value concerning her status, behaviour or state of being. In addition to public perception, ‘face’ has an internal psychological aspect as well: it captures one’s self-image and evaluation of oneself in regard to shared ethical standards and social hierarchies, expectations and norms.

Face is particularly important in East Asian societies such as China, and found in two related forms. The first and more popular conception, mianzi (面子), primarily concerns wealth, social status, position, power and prestige; the second, lian (臉), concerns moral character and behaviour. A person can have mianzi – eg, status, position, etc – but lack a corresponding level of lian eg, be regarded as morally bad. A complete lack of lian erodes and eventually undermines one’s mianzi, while someone with great lian will have considerable mianzi.

In contemporary Chinese society the question of face has taken a new and disturbing form that profoundly affects these more traditional, Confucian-inspired conceptions. China’s rapidly expanding network of surveillance cameras increasingly relies upon AI-aided facial-recognition technology to achieve much of its primary mission: to keep track of, record, control and modify the behaviour of its citizens. Within this system, ‘face’ really has nothing to do with traditional conceptions of moral or social status – at least, their ideal forms; it is not about how one views oneself or how the members of one’s community regard one. Instead, it is to be an object under the gaze of a systematic government surveillance system established by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and guided by increasingly sophisticated AI. My primary interest is what this does to the traditional notions of mianzi, lian and related ideas about virtue, but I will also note an unanticipated implication that the new mass surveillance carries for the CPC, an implication that betokens a more general concern with the ethics of AI.

My central claim is that the new surveillance culture largely eliminates not only concern with but the possibility of traditional, Confucian-inspired conceptions of face and related conceptions of virtue. By focusing on the physical face for identification, and assessing citizens purely in terms of their perceived benefit or harm to the state – measured in terms of the Social Credit System (社会信用体系) – the new surveillance culture fundamentally alters the senses and functions of these traditional concepts, eliminating both the internal, moral dimension of face as well as its external, socially constituted dimension. In a very real sense, it constitutes an ultimate and complete loss of face.

In the West, similar issues are discussed in terms of the right to privacy and the need to protect personal space, social activities and institutions, and there is great merit in this line of reasoning. Here, though, I present an independent argument that can complement such concerns but arises out of traditional Confucian ideas about understanding and improving the self. It is important to explore and analyse this perspective not only because it provides an alternative moral take on mass surveillance but also because it is of great significance to people in these cultures, especially because this approach to virtue is often hijacked by those seeking to defend the surveillance state.

Such attempted appropriation appeals to the idea that since ‘collectivist’ Confucians hold that everyone is capable of and should aim at becoming morally noble, why should they worry about surveillance? Since the state is pursuing this policy in order to ‘maintain order’ and eliminate ‘disruptive elements’ including of course ‘terrorists’, well-intentioned and ‘patriotic’ people should welcome and embrace AI-guided state surveillance as a prosthetic contributing to the cultivation of the self, or xiuyang (修養), and one that offers a new and powerful technology for improving both self and society.

This, however, distorts the fundamental assumptions, aims and methods of traditional Confucianism. While Confucianism encompasses a vast range of different conceptions of human nature and how to improve it, all of them share the basic idea that morality concerns a view about human nature and its cultivation, aimed at enhancing the welfare of self and society by producing people of humane and admirable character. The basic picture starts with a challenge to improve ourselves and to extend the scope of our moral concern – from ourselves and our immediate family and friends, to neighbours, society and eventually all the world. The ultimate aim is to move from the individual to ‘all under heaven’ and bring peace, prosperity and happiness to all.

A central aspect of this process is the need for people to be watchful over themselves when alone (君子慎其獨), which is, roughly, a call to be vigilantly aware of one’s thoughts and feelings with an eye toward moral improvement. But under the unrelenting gaze of mass surveillance, we are almost never alone; we are robbed of the opportunity to set out on the Way by cultivating the ability to monitor our own thoughts and feelings, and regulate, order, augment and enhance them in an ongoing effort to cultivate ourselves. Under such circumstances, core Confucian moral ideals such as attaining ‘sincerity’, or cheng (誠), and a proper sense of shame, or chi (恥), are no longer possible. Instead of looking within to understand, assess and craft my thoughts and feelings in an ongoing effort to cultivate myself, I am forced to organise myself and my life around the aim of pleasing the state and its AI overseer. Under such conditions, I lose sight of what I actually believe about goodness and virtue, and my independent judgments about such matters lose motivational power. Our personal responsibility for ourselves and our collective effort to understand, shape and improve our shared social life are outsourced to the state, in particular to the CPC, and delegated to an algorithm.

Aside from the profound damage that the new mass surveillance does to traditional notions about face, there is an unforeseen implication for the CPC that betokens a general ethical concern about autonomous, intelligent machines. The party vigorously defends its programme of mass surveillance by appealing to the purported benefits it brings to society, which typically include defending it against lurking and imminent threats of terrorism, crime, social unrest, decaying values, and undermining overall social ‘harmony’. As the vanguard of the proletariat, the party takes upon itself the task of determining what is best for society in regard to these and other goods, and designing policies to achieve them.

Whatever the merits of such arguments, the recent, increasing use of AI to run the party’s mass surveillance and related Social Credit System introduces a mechanism that is new to the state’s machinery; now, decisions about what constitutes a threat to the state and what is in society’s best interests, as well as how to go about achieving optimal results, are controlled more and more not by party members but by the autonomous and intelligent machines running the system. It is not at all clear why anyone would believe these machines will continue to choose and employ values, goals and methods that are aligned with those of the ruling members of the CPC. It would appear that the present trajectory not only leaves out individual members of society from the process of deciding what kind of life they want to live but will increasingly make the party and its leadership superfluous. The state might indeed ‘wither away’, as the German philosopher Friedrich Engels predicted in 1878, but not in the way or with the consequences he described.

Philip Ivanhoe

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

(Im)personal… and Painful

Two sides of a coin —

Either/or, Or?

Darkness and light;

No! Darkness and light;

Or? Light? Darkness?

Light afterwards

Aah! Darkest before dawn?

Dawn’s somewhat dark…

One coin, one side — why two?

Necessity, meaning, we crave!

Then One, essentially. Two is a lie!

Two is a convenient One

One’s a true One!

Aah! Truth? False follows right away

Okay! What’s the point – live or not to?

Either, I say – two, but one n’ same

Settle for one, maybe?

Or Two, still One and same

How William James encourages us to believe in the possible

In college, I developed a mysterious illness. I experienced myself as happy, yet in the afternoons I would cry for two hours. Although the obvious interpretation was depression, to me it was all about lunch. Food exhausted me and made me sad. I tried skipping breakfast and lunch, and snacking on cottage cheese and milk chocolate bars. Then carrots.

After many afternoons like this, what philosophical 18-year-old would believe in free will? I was a digestive system, molecules. The next thought was that I would die, dissolve into molecules… while young.

Around this time, I discovered William James (1842-1910), the father of American psychology as a formal discipline. Was my problem ‘psychological’ or ‘physical’? James let me understand that it could be both. Mental phenomena, he explained, had physical roots. He created the first biology-based psychology lab at Harvard University, yet he trusted subjective experience and honoured our capacity for clear thought. I was my digestion and I had choices, too.

The debate about free will is clear on one point: we experience ourselves as choosing. This might be an illusion, but not one that we can function without. When you pick up your arm, you’re picking up your arm. However, during those teary jags, if my arm went up, it didn’t feel like my choice. Mostly, I just lay there. When I was 17, a date slipped me Quaaludes and raped me – the experience was similar. And I had stopped feeling that I had any choice about what I ate.

Yet around 4pm every day, I would rise and do my schoolwork, sometimes with floods of inspiration. I had a perfect string of As that year.

James also had been overcome when young, and felt doomed. For almost three years after receiving his medical degree, he stayed home suffering digestive trouble, poor eyesight, back pain, hallucinations, panic attacks and depression. He was unable to exercise or believe in his own will. But on 30 April 1870, he rose, writing in his diary:

[Y]esterday was a crisis … I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second ‘Essais’ and see no reason why his definition of Free Will – ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ – need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present – until next year – that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.

For him, as for me, the self, or ‘will’, had to be asserted against the weight of uncertainty about our future ability to function. For decades to this day, I tried one diet after another. I tried every antidepressant. I and my symptoms fluctuated, and I didn’t know why or when. But as I read James, I just needed to keep trying things and, most of all, be brave. From him I learned that the truth is elusive – but taking action is mandatory.

Over the years, I turned to this thought whenever I didn’t know whether I was well enough to accept a challenge, if my illness was the danger or the bigger danger was my fear. James almost missed out on his great love, his wife Alice, fearing that he wasn’t sane and sturdy enough to ask anyone to share his fate. ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ (1903), one of his younger brother Henry James’s most famous stories, describes a man too preoccupied with a sense of doom to love.

Just do it. Now it’s a Nike slogan, popular because it’s so useful. James chose to believe love would be a cure. He would credit Alice for his stability during what became an extraordinarily productive life. Although always fighting a volatile disposition and bad eyesight, he was joyful, an eccentric dresser, great conversationalist, and a spontaneous teacher. He created moments for play. Ebullience can be annoying to other people – killjoys who consider it shallow. James thought it was anything but. When his carriage moved slowly on a mountaintop, he would jump out to lighten the burden on the horses. He played tennis, skated, bicycled, rode horses, and climbed mountains.

His life teaches us to stick with the big project – even if we miss our deadlines. In 1878, James signed a contract to write a psychology textbook in two years. The Principles of Psychology, a massive compendium, didn’t appear until 1890. The project weighed heavily on him, but he persisted, revising chapters four or five times over. James cared about his writing style – and was delighted that so many people in his day experienced his textbook chapters as rousing sermons. In one on habit, his sage advice – make resolutions and tell other people so you’ll feel accountable – resonates today.

As he finished this tome, he wrote to Alice: ‘[I]t does give me some comfort to think that I don’t live wholly in projects, aspirations and phrases, but now and then have something done to show for all the fuss.’ If you feel like a dreamer, James is on your side.

It helped that Alice had faith, both in her husband and the Almighty. James, who at various points attended church, understood that faith can be psychologically healthy, and argued in his essay ‘The Will to Believe’ (1896) that we can talk ourselves into it. But he doesn’t seem ever to have believed.

This too inspired me, an atheist: I admire and seek out the devout, and attend services of all kinds. It’s become common now, picking up religious practices as a form of self-care. James invites us to be open to the mysterious, from God to psychic phenomena. We act on ‘insufficient evidence’ in all areas of life, he said.

The let’s-try-it ethos of his free-will formula became a core idea. James belonged to a small group in Cambridge, Massachusetts who developed pragmatism as a uniquely American school. Facing a fractured society after the horrors of the Civil War, the pragmatists told Americans to ditch their certainties, accept constant change, experiment and understand that we judge ‘truth’ by results. Did the idea prove helpful in some consistent way?

Experimentation doesn’t have to mean that we abandon the hope of lasting moral principles, as the post-Civil War pragmatists seemed to urge. But imagine you were a Northerner interested in protecting the Union before the Civil War. Would you have been an abolitionist? How often do we accept a wrong because the cost of fighting it is too high, and the zealots on both sides are hard to trust? James was proud of his two younger brothers who became officers for black regiments while still teenagers. He was also ashamed that he himself didn’t fight. But he didn’t enlist. Biographers blame his father; he blamed himself.

His dilemma has stayed with me. One of my friends, a black evangelical Christian, believes that abortion is today’s slavery, the great wrong the majority can’t see. I don’t agree but I can’t just call her a zealot. I’m a feminist and I listen, hard.

We say it’s harder to listen now – the stakes higher, the conflict more intense. But has it ever been easy? James would have us listen to hone our own arguments, knowing that conflict can speed progress. In an era fascinated with Charles Darwin, James touted the value of competition. ‘Rivalry lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it … The spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort,’ he wrote in 1899. In my own life, I tend to be ashamed when I am competitive or envious – I like James’s idea that it’s normal.

Recently, I received a new diagnosis. It has taken 30 years for scientists to track symptoms such as mine to an immune disorder. My grandmother, who was born in 1900, probably suffered from the same problem. When her face swelled up as a young woman, her doctors pulled out all her teeth. Nobody did that to me! Like millions of people with chronic ailments, I’ve tried strange, embarrassing remedies with mixed success. Yet had I demanded stronger reasons for confidence, I believe my life now would be much smaller.

After all these years, I’m grateful for the scientific progress in my time and its animating philosophy, which James helped to establish.

Four o’clock comes to us all. When you’re well, it comes in the morning. We ‘sustain a thought’ about getting up, even if we’d rather not, and we rise. As a child, I didn’t know my grandmother wore false teeth. I saw her as she chose to be, at breakfast, ebullient and smiling.

Temma Ehrenfeld

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Given how little effect you can have, is it rational to vote?

For far too long, the accepted wisdom among scholars of politics has been that the interests of the individual and the interests of society are not in harmony when it comes to voting. The American economist Anthony Downs, in his foundational book An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), argued that a truly rational individual, who knows that her vote is highly unlikely to tip the outcome in favour of her preferred candidate, should not bother to cast a ballot. On this view of human rationality, an independent action that carries no instrumental value for the person who acts is essentially foolish, justifiable only by the sense of pride or communion with others that it creates in her.

This is fine, perhaps even compelling, as an esoteric argument. But taken to its logical extreme, this classical account of rationality would imply that nobody should ever vote. This outcome would gut democratic governance of its central regulating mechanism. Society would be left worse off, even if each citizen were spared the apparently pointless expense of time and energy involved in a trip to the ballot box. Two facts are missing from the classical view: that elections are ultimately cooperative ventures, and that the rationality of participating in them depends on more than an individual-level cost-benefit analysis of the effort involved in each pull of a voting-machine lever or crossing of a ballot paper. An individual’s true interest in voting is inextricably intertwined with the interests of the polity as a whole.

In this, voting is not fundamentally different from many other actions. Failure to participate in a collective endeavour is fundamentally irrational whenever it risks contributing to outcomes contrary to our own basic interests. We rely on cooperation to solve a range of pressing challenges, from global warming and extreme poverty to preventable disease. Few question the rationality of minimising our individual carbon footprints, for example, or individually deciding to boycott companies that rely on child labour. No one person who engages in such behaviour will individually solve the climate crisis or eliminate the exploitation of children. But it is still rational to undertake individual actions that contribute to a collective effort likely to have desirable effects for humanity as a whole.

On this view of rationality, we ask: what is good for the whole, including me, and how can I contribute to it, however modestly? This view recognises that, when many adopt the same individual behaviour, good things can ensue for all. The collective benefit that accrues to everybody who cooperates outweighs the cost to each individual of shouldering her share of the burden.

In the context of elections, the collective endeavour is the creation of a just government, and the costs involved in making individual contributions towards this goal are minimal. Voting is an episodic act that causes only limited disruptions to our lives if registration and voting procedures function as they should. And gathering sufficient factual information to determine which candidate(s) are most likely to best serve the collective interest should not be an unduly complex affair. Aristotle, by no means a supporter of full democracy, claimed in his Politics that citizens don’t have to be technical experts to participate in civic life. Voting does require some knowledge; but it doesn’t require excessive or deeply technical knowledge. Similarly, voter ignorance is not an act of God. We need reforms that enhance access to truth and civic education. We should not condone conscious deceiving from an immoral political class. The duty to vote is really a duty to vote responsibly – yet, it is doable. We should place heavier stress on what causes voter apathy and ignorance, rather than see them as culprits for all that is wrong with democracy.

In return, when many people vote, we can expect elections to deliver fair-minded governments – or at least to oust inept and immoral ones. I would argue that we have a duty to help our fellow citizens in this way, and that we should understand voting as a duty of common pursuit – that is, one that requires that we act together to achieve collective benefits.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill took a similar line. In his Considerations on Representative Government (1861), he characterised the vote as a trust, arguing that it gave each citizen – ‘either as an elector or as a representative’ – power over other citizens in society. Assuming that Mill recognised that, except in rare cases, no individual ballot was likely to turn the tide of an election, the ‘power’ to which he referred is best understood as a collective one, but grounded in individual action. Cumulatively, individual votes have the power to affect the quality of governments – and therefore the lives of our fellow citizens, as well as our own.

Is there any situation in which cooperation of this sort would not be preferable, from an individual perspective? In the Second Treatise of Government (1689), the English philosopher John Locke argued that it would be rational to prefer living in a state of nature over co-operating with others in collective obedience to an authoritarian government. Is voting similar? Is there a possible scenario in which it would be rational for an individual to decline to vote?

In my view, there is not. If we fail to save a child drowning in a pond – to use an example made by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in 1972 – we are causally implicated in the death, even if we didn’t put the child in the water to drown. Similarly, one individual decision not to vote – combined with similar decisions by others – can keep unjust governments in power or just ones from being formed. There is nothing irrational about wanting to avoid these possibilities by acting in conjunction with others in the same way that we cooperate with others by recycling or donating to charity. Even if I have no way of knowing if others will vote, I should act as if they would vote, and they should act similarly. This is the logic of collective commitment that undergirds the morality of voting.

This approach to collective rationality should reduce the allure of free-riding – ie, the predisposition to gain from the effort of others without doing our fair share of the work needed to generate a collective benefit. However, there is nothing extraordinary in acting with the common good in mind in situations when self-interest is not jeopardised by doing so. In fact, people do this all the time, perhaps moved by what the Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen calls ‘a concern for decency of behaviour’, without their commitment overtaking their lives and other goals.

Basic morality doesn’t require us to be saints, and casting informed votes is not a heroic, saintly act. It requires minimal effort for most of us. To argue otherwise is to suggest that any form of helping others is morally optional because it requires ‘too much from us’. If we are set on the notion that any type of positive action towards others is morally voluntary because it demands slightly more than merely refraining from doing something bad, then consensus on the morality of voting will be forever elusive.

But so, too, will be consensus on the morality of so many other ways of improving the world. A society where citizens are too complacent to serve the collective good – including their own – is not a society worthy of the name.

Julia Maskivker

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.