Sunday, January 14, 2007

Is the majority always right?

This is a sample argumentative piece used to illustrate some principles of exposition for my students:

Is the majority always right?

Satyam, Ritam, Brihat, the Truth the Right, the Vast—this is the triple name of the supreme divine principle in Vedic Hinduism. Jesus, in a totally different age and milieu, would proclaim that he is the ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). In China, we would hear about the Tao: the way of righteousness and the deepest truth of things. Throughout the ages, and in some of our greatest civilizations, people have instinctively and rightly perceived a link between the ‘right’ and the ‘true’—or in philosophical terms, between ethics and ontology.

Thus when we evaluate the question of whether ‘the majority is always right’ we can approach it from two main angles: what the majority supports in a given society is always ethically right, or that the opinion of the majority is always true.

From certain ethical perspectives, it may seem possible to accept the first argument. Consequentialist ethics asserts that what is ethically right is simply that which secures the maximum happiness (utility) for the greatest number of people. In the political arena, those government decisions and policies accepted as ‘right’ by the majority are clearly those that best match the demands of the citizenry. Assuming that utility comes from the satisfaction of wants, then for the government to execute what the majority views as ‘right’ will maximize social utility and is therefore something that is ethically sound. In this view, it would seem that a democratic government based on majority opinion is the most ethical one, in that it can provide powerful incentives for generally self-interested politicians to cater to the desires of the mass electorate.

This is however subjected to two important caveats: firstly, the democratic system must indeed cater to the demands of the masses and not be hijacked by powerful elites. Unusually influential minorities like the Jews in America or the Marwaris in India are practically inevitable. Yet in its reasonably healthy incarnations in Anglo Saxon countries, continental Europe and parts of Asia, the ‘political free market’ does generally force often self-interested politicians to maximize the happiness of the majority. Thus well-functioning democracies do usually attempt to satisfy their citizens’ demands for economic prosperity, good education, sound health care systems, clean environments and so on. Indeed, history has shown that despite democracy’s numerous quirks, it is hard to name any other political system that has better served humanity’s welfare and progress. Democracy, as Sir Winston Churchill has aptly pointed out, ‘is the worst government—except for all the others.’

Secondly, and more fatally, happiness may not always come with the satisfaction of our wants. The old adage that the worst thing that God can do is to grant our prayers applies quite frequently in democratic history. Ancient Athens, cradle of democracy, engaged in the popular but fatal Peloponnesian wars with Sparta—a conflict that ended the golden age of Greece and opened her up to foreign domination. The disasters of Athenian democracy—including the unjust state execution of Socrates—explained why Plato and Aristotle were so much against democracy. In the modern era, Neville Chamberlain, supported by the majority of his countrymen, foolishly appeased Adolf Hitler in the 1930s: a mistake that nearly led to national annihilation and the advent of what Churchill had called ‘a new dark age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.’

Thus even in the narrow province of politics, it is untrue that majority opinion always lead to ethical actions that enhance overall welfare. Indeed, if we consider other ethical schools, like those deontological philosophies that attribute inalienable rights to human beings (from God, natural law and so on), then the argument breaks down completely. The human right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ cannot be denied even if only one out of a million supports it. In this case, majority opinion is simply irrelevant. What is right is right by virtue of it being right. A tyranny of the majority that denies fundamental human rights to a minority—like the racist oppression of the old American South—cannot be ethically just even if overall utility is somehow maximized.

Then what about the argument that majority opinion is always true? Here the mistake is blatant and obvious. If majority opinion is always correct, then we should no doubt still believe everything that were held in common by our stone-age ancestors. After all, all science and every intellectual discipline would have reached their utopian glory (by majority consensus!) at the very dawn of humanity, and the duty of all future generations is simply to preserve The Perfect Truth for all eternity to come.

If only it were that simple. The truth is that the flame of knowledge burns ever brighter not due to the lemming-like masses who follow old ruts, but thanks to those lone pioneers—the visionary, the prophet, the maverick scientist and the courageous scholar who defy received conventions to revolutionize our way of looking at the world. The world did not spontaneously throw ‘common sense’ out of the window and come to the conclusion that time and space are relative and that energy and mass are equivalent—it was one Albert Einstein who changed our paradigm with his theory of relativity. Society did not suddenly decide by a mass election that species evolve by natural selection—it was one Charles Darwin who proposed the theory of evolution.

And even more importantly: it is usually an exceptional individual who transfigures the collective ethical darkness. In a cruel Empire, it was one Jesus Christ who was willing to be crucified to incarnate his creed that love must exclude no one—not sinners, nor the downtrodden, nor those of a different race, nor those who hate and crucify. It was one Gandhi who taught his nation and a violent world that effective political action can be based on ahimsa—non-violence, and that the religions of the world must co-exist in peace—and who paid with his life for his beliefs.

In a world where terror grows with mastery, where man could weave the flame of the stars but remains blind to the fire of his heart—it is all the more important for the individual to show us the path less taken.

Yet in an age of ever more fearsome technologies, perhaps the time has passed when a single individual or even a small minority can save mankind—for it is not merely intellectual truth or even a great shining example that can bring us safely through our peril. Teilhard de Chardin has pointed out how humanity has been brought to a point where we must choose between ‘suicide or adoration’. The majority is not always right, but now is the age where the ethical and intellectual choices of the masses must more and more conform to rationality and truth—the very survival of our species is at stake. And even more is needed: perhaps not just the individual, but also the collective mass must wake up to that inner Truth which great ancient cultures have equated with the Right that simply is. Perhaps it is only a spiritual renaissance that can inspire humanity to embrace the way of peace. I can only pray that we do not have to walk through fire and darkness to reach the Light.

(1227 words)