Majority Rules

I am often the first one to speak up when something is being applied anachronistically. Thus, I proceed with care. Even carefully going forward, though, will not allow me to unsee what I have already seen. In reading Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience I came across his section on slavery that had not previously caught my attention. It stopped me dead in my tracks last night though, as I was reading through it again.

When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.

Thoreau was quite underwhelmed with allowing the masses to determine what is “right.” My experience as a student of history has caused me to come to the firm conviction that it is never right to allow a majority to determine the rights, or lack thereof, of a minority. The most obvious contemporary parallel is same-sex marriages. A few states have put this to vote (the most notable being Prop 8 in California) and allowed the majority to determine what rights a minority (homosexuals) were allowed to have. That is, the majority was allowed certain rights simply because there were more of them, but the minority were not allowed these rights due to the relative lack of them.

Try as I may, I continue to fail to be able to see how this system is “right” or “just.” The majority has almost never chosen to allow a minority to have rights equal to theirs. Think of blacks in America gaining their rights. Think of women gaining theirs. Both of these fights were long and hard and while they may have had some supporters who were part of the majority, the majority never supported their fight for equal rights.

What do you think? Should the majority be allowed to determine the rights of minorities?

2 thoughts on “Majority Rules

  1. The tyranny of the majority has long been a concern of democratic thinkers and was the driving motivation behind the bill of rights. I agree with your concerns wholeheartedly.

    Plato favored the philosopher king to all other forms of rule with good cause. I think I’m in agreement with him, if we can ever find one to follow. Such a king would rise above self interest and rule with integrity, and ensure others would do the same. Sadly, I don’t think such a ruler would be elected in our system.

  2. A philosopher king doesn’t exist for the same reason that tyranny of the majority is a problem. People are falliable and often (in fact, usually) put their own interests ahead of what is right. Also, people are limited. Even if we did find an individual who could always rise above self-interest, he would never be able to learn all the relevant facts of every matter before him in order to arrive a a correct decision every time; the world is just too complicated. This is why people need to be left to manage their own affairs. No one knows your problems better than you do, and it is up to you to make good and just decisions in your life.

    Marriage is wholly appropriate matter for the group as a whole to decide, because marriage is a public contract. It is not a private matter between two people, it is an important public union that the public needs to know about and agree to if all that follows from marriage is to function properly. I give my spouse a great deal of preferential treatment over others, and this is justified and accepted only because she is my spouse. Were we to somehow treat our marriage as something private, we would very quickly have a lot to answer for to all the other people in our lives. So, if the majority of the society flatly refuses to admit of a new type of marriage, I’m afraid that’s the end of the matter.

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