Will You Do Your Duty?

In one sense, it’s hard to argue with the statistics that any individual’s vote makes a difference. One person out of so many? When more than 50% of the population doesn’t even bother? In a country of gerrymandering and voter suppression? In the other, it’s stunning to think that the 2016 US presidential election, which saw some 135 million votes, was decided by roughly 77,000 ballots across three states. Michigan was swung by just 10,000 voters.

But to this argument, the Stoic would scoff. Whether your vote counts or not is not the reason that one should engage in the democratic process. First off, the Stoics are explicit that the philosopher is obligated to contribute to the polis, and to participate in politics (this is an essential difference between the Epicureans and the Stoics). But more important, the idea that one should only do something if their preferred outcome is guaranteed violates just about everything we talk about here.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote,

You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible—and no one can keep you from this.

Which is to say: The act of casting a ballot is in your control. Who gets elected is not. The latter is not an excuse from the duty of the former. Think about how dangerous the logic of non-voting would be if extrapolated out. Almost no difference is made by the individual who decides to do the right thing, to do an act of kindness, to insist on the truth when a falsehood is easier, to be a good parent, to care about the quality of their work. Is that a reason to be a liar, a cheat, an asshole, a bad parent, or a poor craftsman? Of course not. And imagine what the world would look like if everyone insisted it was?

A better world is built action by action, vote by vote, even if the vast majority of those votes and actions are thwarted.

Being good, like voting, is in our control. Whether it has a noticeable or significant impact on the world is not. But we do it anyway because it’s our duty. The same is true for voting—today, in the next election, in every election. Make your tiny contribution to the common good. Because it will make a difference, if not to the whole, it will to you.

And the fact that pretty much all the politicians we can choose from are a choice between the lesser of two evils? Well, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we shouldn’t “go around expecting Plato’s Republic.” This is the real world. So who do you vote for? That’s your call. Just make sure that the Stoic virtues of justice and fairness and sympatheia influence your decisions.

P.S. This was originally sent on October 27, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.