Saturday, October 15, 2005

Democracy and Tyranny of the Majority

With Iraq having voted on its new Constitution, I thought that this would be a good time to say something about morality within a democracy.

Clearly, it is not the case that the majority is always right. If we take a poll in a society and determine that 85% of them believe that capital punishment is morally acceptable, 10% of the people are opposed, and 5% are undecided, this does not prove that 85% of the people are right and 10% are wrong. It is possible that the 85% are victims of a popular injustice.

Against Cultural Relativism

To illustrate the problem with the idea that the majority is always right, imagine a society where 85% of the people want to simply round up and kill everybody belonging to a genetic subgroup or religion within that society. Let us assume that this subgroup makes up 2% of the population – it is too small to defend itself. Naturally, this 2% is opposed to the slaughter. Let us also assume that 8% of the remaining are opposed as well.

So, we have a society with 85% favoring this slaughter, 10% opposed, and 5% undecided.

Being a member of the 10% opposed to the slaughter does not mean that one is wrong. It does not matter that the slaughter would pass a popular vote, it is still wrong.

For a moment, let’s take seriously the claim that right and wrong (for a society) are determined by what people within that society tend to say is right or wrong. If this is true, then a person answering the question, “Is X wrong?” is being asked “Would people in this society tend to disapprove of people doing X?”

Applying this to the example discussed above, the people being asked if this slaughter is wrong are being asked, “Is it the case that people generally will support such a slaughter?” We would have to interpret the 85% of the people saying ‘yes’ as saying ‘the majority of the people would support such a slaughter.” The 5% of the people who are undecided would have to be understood as saying, “I do not know whether people would generally approve of this slaughter or not.” The 10% opposed to the slaughter would be understood as saying, “People generally are saying that this slaughter is wrong.”

Clearly, when people answer this question they are not trying to divine what people in society would generally approve or disapprove of. They are trying to decide whether the slaughter has “something else” – a moral quality, with 85% saying ‘yes’, 10% saying ‘no’, and 5% being uncertain, and with 85% being wrong, in this case.

This is fatal to the idea that right and wrong is determined by what the bulk of a society approves of. This is fatal to the idea that all you have to do in a society is take a vote and you arrive at a moral truth (for that society).

There are wrongs other than slaughter, by the way. The 85% majority may decide to enslave the minority. This slavery might be as obtrusive as putting 2% of the population in chains and allowing them to be bought and sold, or it could involve allowing them to work while taking from them everything (or almost everything) that they earn.

The 85% could force the minority onto a reservation, building a wall around them, and not allowing them the freedom to move about that others are allowed to enjoy. It could mean prohibiting the minority from enjoying liberties that others enjoy – such as prohibiting them from working at jobs they enjoy and are competent to perform, or prohibiting them from entering contracts that others of equal competence may enter.

These points are relevant to those who push around the following piece of “wisdom”:

It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, it is very hard to understand why there is such a mess about having the Ten Commandments on display or "In God We Trust" on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!

There are two moral objections that can be raised against those who are sympathetic to the ideas expressed in this message.

The first is that a fair and just government is a government of, by, and for 100% of the people, not 86% of the people. This is (or should be) neutral ground where people of different backgrounds and beliefs meet to peacefully negotiate their differences. A majority that insists on putting up its own flags, signs, and banners is trying to claim this ‘neutral territory’ as its own, and destroying its neutrality. They are saying, “We are not equals here. We are the masters, you are the servants. We have the right to command, you have the duty to obey.”

The second is that the majority never has the right to tell the minority to sit down and shut up. This is cultural moral relativism at its worse. It represents not only an arrogant presumption that the majority is always right, but it lays the foundation for a tyranny of the majority in that the majority assumes the right to demand that the minority “sit down and shut up.”

Anybody who promotes the idea that the minority can be told to “sit down and shut up” is somebody who has lost his moral compass and who shows a disturbing inability to distinguish right from wrong.

Tyranny of the Majority

So, what happens in a democracy where 85% of the population actually think that they have a right to impose these unfair and unjust burdens on 2%; and only 8% of the remaining population are willing to say that it is wrong?

How does a democracy ensure the power of the majority does not corrupt them to the point that they subject the minority to unfair and unjust treatment? What protections are there against a tyranny of the majority?

If the courts decide to defend the rights of the minority, the majority has the power to replace those judges with those who are willing to accept, and even eager to promote, injustice against the minority. It may take some time, but it can be done.

We can see this as an issue in Iraq, where certain minorities fear that they will be subject to a tyranny of the majority.

So, how do we set up a democracy that avoids this problem? How do we set up a society so that the majority recognizes that the fact that they have the most votes does not prove that right is on their side, and there are things they may not do to the minority?

Defending Right from Wrong

I see this as being analogous to a situation where a kidnapper is holding a gun on a hostage. What is the hostage to do if he is at risk of being treated unfairly and unjustly? Let us also assume that the hostage taker has a physical advantage – fighting back is out of the question, both because the hostage-taker has all the power, and the hostage is adverse to using violence to solve problems.

One option is to point out, as I did at the start of the post, that “popular” does not mean “right”, and minorities have no duty or obligation to serve the majority or to sit down and shut up. But what is the use of reason in this case.

In other words, the minority can appeal, through reason, to the moral facts and hope that the majority can be made to recognize and respect those facts. This is true just as the hostage may try to appeal to the hostage-taker’s better nature in trying to negotiate his own safety. However, this requires that the hostage-taker have a better nature.

There are ways, I think, to reason with the majority, because there is no absolute majority. Anybody can find themselves in a minority, depending on how the political allegiances line up. In matters of race, gender, cultural heritage, physical location, in any number of ways an individual can find himself in a minority. At this point, the question becomes, “What type of rules would you want the majority to adopt regarding the treatment of minorities, given that shift in the political allegiances at any moment may make you a minority.”

Do you agree that the majority should think it right to tell the minority to sit down and shut up? Do you agree that the governments should be neutral ground where all citizens are treated as equals and none have a right to lay claim to them by posting their side’s flags and banners around as if to convey the message, ‘This is our territory; you are allowed here only insofar as it pleases us to allow you on our territory?”

The rules of a democracy need to be established with these types of considerations in mind. The majority has no right to tell the minority to sit down and shut up. The majority has no right to take possession of ‘neutral territory’ represented by the government institutions and to put up its banners and signs and to take possession of ‘neutral territory’ as its won.

These are just two of the rules that bind the majority -- that say, "Regardless of how many votes you can muster, regardless of your ability to take control of courts and make your own members the judge of everything, there are still some things that you have no right to do."

These rules are essential to protecting against a tyranny of the majority. These rules are essential to protecting minorities from abuse and injustice that majorities will otherwise be tempted to inflict on them.

The establishment of an Iraqi Constitution is a good thing. Though, ultimately, peace and justice requires a recognition that, even in a democracy, being popular is not the same thing as being right. And even God cannot give the majority the right to take possession of the neutral ground that is Government, or to tell the minority to sit down and shut up.

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