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94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society

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Postgraduate Sessions: Are Citizens Causally Responsible for the Actions of their Political Leaders?

Christina Nick (Leeds)


Are citizens morally responsible for the outcomes of political decisions taken by their leaders? To answer this question, we have to establish how citizens could be causally implicated in the outcomes of actions taken by the state. They could stand in the required causal relationship either as a collective or individually. Recent accounts have primarily taken the collective route because of a major obstacle to using an individualistic approach, namely, the problem over-determination. The actions of each citizen do not make an individual difference to the overall political outcome and therefore they cannot be a cause of it. I begin by examining Kutz’s (2007) and Lepora and Goodin’s (2013) accounts of complicity and how they have attempted to show that individuals can be complicit in the outcomes of collective action despite not having made an individual difference to it. I then argue that both attempts ultimately fail and instead I suggest, drawing on suggestions by Parfit (1984) and Wright (1985), that we should allow for the idea that individuals can be causally responsible not only in virtue of making a difference to an outcome as an individual, but also in virtue of making a difference as part of a set of agents. I will apply this to the case of voting in order to show that individual citizens can indeed be causally responsible for the outcomes of political decisions. I therefore conclude that we can overcome the problem of overdetermination for the individualistic approach and that it merits further investigation.


Christina Nick is a lecturer in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, where she has also recently completed her PhD. She previously studied for an MPhil in Political Theory at the University of Oxford and a BA in Philosophy and Politics at the University of Manchester. Her PhD research, which was supervised by Carl Fox and Rob Lawlor, focussed on giving an account of the problem of democratic dirty hands; i.e. understanding situations in which democratic politicians have to commit moral violations for good moral reasons. In particular, she is interested in examining the extent to which we can ascribe moral responsibility to, and maybe even hold accountable, both political actors as well as citizens in cases of moral conflict.


  • Rachel Cooper

    11th July 2020 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks for the great talk! I worry a bit that a great deal seems to depend on whether voting is conceived of as a synchronous or asynchronous activity. Your argument requires it to be synchronous, but a good deal of the argument for it being plausible that we do take voting to be a synchronous activity depends on very contingent facts about the way voting currently works (eg all the votes get collected together before counting starts, the result only gets announced at the end etc). But imagine our practices change slightly in the future. Suppose that instead of casting paper votes we come to use a computer-based system which counts as votes are cast, and suppose that once a politician gets more than 50% of possible votes it stops counting (ie there’s a point in time , T1, where the result of the vote can’t be changed whatever the remaining potential voters do, and it stops counting at that point). Once the computer stops counting, people aren’t immediately told and they just carry on voting until the end of the day. I take it in that such a scenario, only those voters who vote prior to T1 are responsible? And those who vote for the nasty fascist after T1 aren’t to blame. Seems odd that so much depends on the details of the voting system. Thanks.

  • Bill Wringe

    11th July 2020 at 4:17 pm

    Interesting talk!

    Two thoughts: 1) I’m not sure it’s true everywhere that we don’t announce the winner of the election until all the votes are counted. Or at least, it seems as though there are countries where that’s definitely not the case – think about the US in 2000. (And in the US, I think that provisional ballots are often not counted at all unless the margin is less than the number of provisional ballots). At any rate, in constituency systems, we often see a result announced when one side has won enough constituencies for a majority. (Californians and Hawaiians often claim that the results are declared before before their votes are counted.)

    2) Even if there might be difficulties with the idea that we make a difference to who wins, it looks as though we can very often make a difference to how much a candidate wins by. And that can (and perhaps should) make a difference to how they exercise the powers of office (governments that have won by a landslide will often act differently from those that have on,y won narrowly. And they may often claim to have a mandate for so doing) . So might these be two ways in voters can become responsible for political outcomes ie I) by changing the ways politicians act and iI) changing the ways in which it is justifiable for them to act

  • Christina Nick

    11th July 2020 at 8:57 pm

    Hi Rachel and Bill! Thanks for your really helpful comments, I’ll respond to both together because I think that you have pointed out a similar issue with my account. I think you’re both right that maybe not all voting systems abstract away from the temporal nature of casting and counting votes as clearly as I am making it out in my argument.

    I’m not entirely sure that Bill’s second suggestion can straightforwardly get me out of trouble here. So let’s say that we have an asynchronous system like the one that Rachel has described and my vote for the fascist candidate doesn’t happen to be included in the set of votes that was necessary to reach the required threshold for the candidate to win because I cast my vote at the end of the day. According to the NESS test I therefore wouldn’t be responsible for the candidate winning the election. Now your suggestion is that I could, however, be held responsible for the margin by which the candidate wins (because my vote is a part of that wider set) and therefore I could be responsible for political outcomes to the extent that the heightened winning margin is emboldening the fascist candidate in pursuing their unjust policies. It would follow that if I cast my vote at the beginning of the day I am responsible for the candidate winning as well as for my contribution to the winning margin which will embolden them, whereas if I cast my vote at the end of the day I am only responsible for the latter. But that would appear an odd conclusion because it means that I will evade some level of moral responsibility simply by casting my vote later rather than earlier.

    To avoid that conclusion I would maybe have to frame things slightly differently from the start: when it comes to responsibility for the outcomes of the political decisions taken by the people I elect it might simply not matter whether my vote was in the more narrow set of votes that was necessary to achieve the winning threshold. All that matters is that my vote was in the broader set of all the votes that together determine the winning margin, because it is that number that ultimately shapes the politician’s mandate and the way that they act. I’ll have to think about that a bit more, but intuitively that actually sounds not implausible to me.

    1. Dave Lucas

      12th July 2020 at 11:47 am

      Thx Christina,

      Awesome talk!

      Helen Zille a South African politician once said, ” People get the government they deserve ”

      By implication stating that your vote makes you responsible for your government.

      Intuitivelly I prefer your revised argument. I think voting is more like the air polution example.

      Another thought to consider is the legal concept of joint and several liability. I think it applies as much to air pollution as voting.

      It might be an alternative method of determining culpability for bad governments.

      1. Christina Nick

        12th July 2020 at 5:07 pm

        Hi Lucas! I wasn’t familiar with the concept of joint and several liability in tort law. Reading up on it it appears to hold that if two agents contribute to a harm they can be individually liable for the full damage. That seems very demanding to me and would have, I think, counter-intuitive results if we applied it to the responsibility of citizens for political outcomes (e.g. just because someone voted for the Labour party in 2001 we wouldn’t want to hold them individually liable for the full damage of the Iraq war). I think it’s more plausible that when someone satisfies the NESS test their potential liability for the outcome will have to be proportionate to the level of their contribution.

    2. Rachel Cooper

      12th July 2020 at 2:13 pm

      Thanks, sounds reasonable to me!