Resolving Contradictions: Honesty & Egoism, Strategy & Altruism

Generally, strategic voting is regarded as incompatible with selfless voting (at least without the pretense that one is wiser than others), and, especially, honest voting is regarded as incompatible with selfish voting. This is an attempt to resolve the apparent contradictions.

I’ll begin with egoism, the ethical philosophy I’m most sympathetic to. I believe the apparent contradiction between strategy and altruism stems from the unfortunate origin of egoism in contractarianism, the attempt to give obedience an egoist foundation. The contractarian logic is most succinctly expressed in Hobbes’ Parable of the Fool and goes as follows: It is in our interest to make contracts but not in our (straightforward) interest to keep our promises. But the consequences of breaking our promises are overwhelming: others will retaliate by breaking promises to us and never enter into contract with us again. By this logic, democracy can viewed as a contract, one we dare not break by rejecting the results of an election merely on the basis of the results. I am thus confident that others will accepts the results and thus free to try to obtain the best result for me. Ironically, contractarianism, which attempts to turn egoism to morality, does the opposite.

Enter Stirner. Egoist Max Stirner skewered Hobbes in his Ego and Its Own, which eloquent critique I interpret as follows: The cost of breaking one’s promise is in fact finite, and often less than the cost of keeping it. If I break my promise only when the changing facts reveal the me of yesterday (the one who made the promise) to have been a “fool” (Stirner turns Hobbes’ parable against him), the reputation I gain by breaking it is of one who breaks foolish promises, which only discourages others from forming contracts with me it would be foolish for me to enter into (and is thus not a bad reputation to have). “Just because I was a fool yesterday, that doesn’t mean I have to be a fool today”, he finishes. Thus, we have no reason to be confident that others will automatically accept election results. Thus, we have an interest in electing a candidate others will accept (i.e. a compromise candidate). Ironically, in rescuing egoism from its contractarian prison, Stirner makes it benign.

And just as a desire for a fair outcome may be regarded as a kind of enlightened egoism, straightforward selfishness may be regarded as a kind of enlightened altruism. To be sure, the altruistic philosophers (“unconscious egoists”, as Stirner called them) did not view voting this way. Rousseau the egalitarian and Mill the utilitarian both viewed the ideal voter as one faithfully offering his opinion of the “public good” (which they defined differently but neither as a self-interested compromise). To them, the purpose of voting was the the purpose of a second opinion or a “jury”: the wisdom of crowds; the more measurements you take, the less errant the mean will be from the truth. But the basis of a different kind of voting can be found elsewhere in Mill, in his description of the common utilitarian, who, lacking knowledge of the public good and the power to sacrifice it to his own, does his part to serve it by pursuing his own interest (part of the public good) within certain boundaries. Might the line between honesty and strategy, if this common utilitarian were to vote, be such a boundary?