Posted by: rogermitchell | April 19, 2015

the selfish vote

Who should I vote for?

This is actually a very ambiguous question. It could be asking which candidate or party should I vote for, or it could be asking on whose behalf should I vote. I think for many people the latter interpretation is obvious, it’s me I should be voting on behalf of. The autonomous me, and my safety, my prosperity, my job, my future. Or if I go a bit wider it would be my family, my social or economic group, my tribe, class, race, locality, age-group and so on.

If I’m moral shouldn’t I vote for the others?

The next generation, the poor, the marginalized, the stranger, those on the receiving end of our government’s economic or foreign policy. I think the answer is yes, for sure. But how many voters are moral? Isn’t the whole idea of the autonomous individual that is at the heart of our western democracy primarily a selfish concept? I think so, and I think it it undermines democracy.  The word democracy comes from the Greek word demos and referred to the common people of the ancient Greek state. So democracy is government of the people by the people for the people. It’s not about autonomy, it’s about the common good, the good of everybody. If I vote for what’s good for me as an individual rather than what’s good for the common people, what Jesus called the multitude, then it’s not a democratic use of the vote but a selfish use. And it’s immoral, sinful, although perfectly legal.

Our current western values need to change

I believe that our values are changing and that many people want, and are working for, moral cultural change throughout society. They need encouragement and resources. Next weekend I’m participating in the Manchester University Lincoln Theological Institute Conference on Self and the City. The aim is to provide serious discussion on how to understand ourselves and how to behave in our changing world.  I shall be giving a paper and chairing a panel discussion on Do Cities Make us Selfish? Of course we don’t just need theoretical resources, we need the relationships, connections and finances to change the way people think and behave. It takes time, but its happening. Until we change our common morality, the popular vote and our politicians and their parties will continue to promote selfish and partisan policies. The signs are that the British people no longer want business as usual. I hope and pray that the coming election will open up a lot more space for real democracy.


  1. Thanks for this piece Rog, it’s excellent. I’ve always baulked at the idea of people voting for their own best interests, I too have always considered it to be incredibly selfish. The way I’ve aligned my political thinking over the past 30 years has almost certainly been in opposition to my own (or my family’s) personal comfort or wealth. I’m glad you’ve articulated the need for thinking about considering multitude over self, more please! 🙂

    • In terms of more about considering the multitude over the self, as you put it, there’s a book on the post-liberal individual coming out later this year, edited by Benjamin Wood of the Lincoln Theological Institute. I’ve a chapter in it entitled “Autonomous selves or loved Others: A Theo-Political Perspective on the Individual.”

  2. I am really glad to hear the church addressing some of the issues listed in the details for the conference. I see so much space for the church to be involved in planning and development, as well as supporting communities here in Latvia and I would guess the same would be applicable elsewhere. Sometimes though they seem to be so involved in saving souls that they are not so interested in building community unless it is giving out of aid. They will miss out on that space I fear.

    • You are right. Re-positioning the church is a challenge. Whether it happens or not generally depends on what they think the gospel is. This is why it is such a crucial moment for rethinking theology.

  3. In my course this year on climate change adaptation I finished the term with a discussion of an article I had found on It is title “The Planet Won”. The first part of the article discusses the futility of voting or recycling or any individual act in terms of making a difference to the health and well-being of others and the planet. It notes that in zero sum economics individual actions are futile at best. They will not save the planet or others. Your vote doesn’t count.

    However, the article’s authors (both social scientists) go on to note that voting (or recycling or anything like that) does have an affect in two ways.
    1. It changes us as individuals. It changes our self-identity. So if I vote for the Green Party I am self identifying as someone who cares for the environment. That holds the possibility of other actions as I develop a lifestyle more committed to the environment and others.
    2. If you are going to vote, the authors urge us to vote well. That is vote for the government/candidates who will do the most to benefit society at large, provide for the poor, care for the earth etc. In other words, just as you have noted above we should use our individual actions to create a better world for others. That means laying aside our own agendas and voting for the general good. If enough of us do that then indeed one’s vote matters. I guess alternatively (though the authors do not say this) if enough of us vote our own personal interests, ie, vote badly, the society suffers.

    So yes, vote but make sure you vote well – that is, for the larger agenda of the good of others and the earth. That really is about the only reason to vote. Use your vote to make a difference even if it takes awhile for that difference to come about.

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