[EM] Voting methods & utility

LAYTON Craig Craig.LAYTON at add.nsw.gov.au
Sun Nov 5 17:05:00 PST 2000

For some time, I've been seeing comments relating to maximising utility in
voting systems.  Very rarely have these comments had anything to do with
utility/utilitarianism.  As a committed utilitarian, I would like to clear a
few things up;

The preferred candidate (whichever way you determine who this is) is not
necessarily the best candidate.  It is impossible to design a voting system
to select the best candidate.

Systems like Borda, cardinal ranking &c. are NOT utilitarian.  They have
nothing to do with utilitarianism.  There might be a crude 'preference
satisfaction = utility' argument, but this isn't really adequate.  These
voting systems normalise preferences (so that everyone's top & bottom score
is the same, no matter how strongly they feel about the candidates).  Also,
the consequences of a non-majoritarian candidate winning are severe enough
to mitigate any utility advantage these systems might have.

There is perhaps some argument about, say, weighting voting systems to
eliminate the most disliked candidates while maintaining majoritarianism.
This might be utilitarian, as there are strong reasons to suggest that
avoiding disutility should be prioritised over maximising utility.
But, again, this only works well when voters are voting sincerely.

Elected representatives do not always make decisions in such a way as to
maximise utility.  There is no reason to suggest that changing the way these
representatives are elected will change the way in which they make
decisions.  The task of utilitarians (and indeed most political
philosophers) is to challenge the decisions that representatives make.  How
those representatives get to power does not significantly affect
utilitarianism, unless the system that got them there causes some
significant disharmony (or the reverse).  There are few proposed systems
that do this (perhaps non-majoritarian systems are the only ones).

I would ask people to think twice about referring to utilitarianism / social
utility &c. when discussing voting systems.

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