The Great Ideas ~ Opinion and Majority Rule

Opinion and Majority Rule

Adler states that he is going to discuss the problem of majority rule, how the opinions of the majority clash with that of the minority and the controversy about basic social issues. Before he proceeds, he reminds the reader about the issues already considered: that central to opinions we have the freedom with regard to how we act; we also have a right to disagree reasonably about policies, actions, etc., however to live in a peaceful society it is imperative to have means to resolve disagreement, to allow that society to work toward a common goal.

Luckman queries of Adler, why political differences cannot be solved in the same way as disputes in science or philosophy?  Adler says it entirely depends on whether one sees science and philosophy as knowledge or opinion; as far as science and philosophy are seen as knowledge, problems can be solved by investigating facts, but because political controversy is seen as opinion, it must be solved in a different manner.

The Attributes of Science (1731)
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
source Wikiart

Offering a fabricated and implausible example of a Supreme court judge claiming that he can scientifically prove his independent decision, Adler shows that if this were possible, we would not have contradictory opinions, nor the need to vote to determine how the majority stood on issues.  It would be equally ridiculous for a mathematician to determine the answer to a problem by taking a vote.  However since politics (and judicial matters) are a matter of opinion, voting is the only reasonable way to proceed.  Luckman wants to know if there is no other way to settle political differences.

There are two possible ways:

  1. Force:  However force only silences differences of opinion, it does not resolve or eradicate them.  It is not a way for reasonable men to behave, as opinions should be heard and settled by debate.
  2. Autocracy:  a majority of society agreeing to give one man the authority to make all the decisions for the society to accept and act on.  Adler does not think this way is as reasonable as letting the majority directly make the decisions, which is more conducive to human freedom.

In political freedom there are two integral factors: 1) that the citizens are “governed for their own good for the common welfare of the State,” making men free when they are governed for the good of all and not for private interests; 2) men have a voice in the government who makes the decisions.  Citizens of even the wisest monarchy or a judicious despot are never completely free and therefore majority rule, where each citizen has a voice in the decisions, imparts the fullest form of political liberty, which should be a right for all.

Wisdom (1560)
Ticiano Vecellio
source Wikiart

Luckman counters with examples from Plato and Hegel who thought it was better for men to be ruled by a wise ruler for their own good, as the majority were often misguided and did not make decisions in the best interests of all society.  Adler agrees that some of the greatest political theorists have disagreed with majority rule and since it is a matter of opinion, he can only defend his case by producing opinions from some of the most respected minds in history:

“Ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows for on public matters no one can hear and decide so well as the many.” ~ Thucydides

“The many of whom each individual is but an ordinary person when they meet together are likely to reach a better decision than the few best men.  For each individual among them has a share of virtue and prudence.  And when they meet together they become in a manner one man who has many feet and hands and senses and minds.  Hence the many are better judges than a single man; for some understand one part, and some another, and together they understand the whole.” ~ Aristotle

“The people of any country, if like Americans they are intelligent and well-informed, seldom adopt and steadily persevere for many years in an erroneous opinion, respecting their interests.” ~ John Jay

“The people commonly and usually intend the public good.  They sometimes do make errors, but the wonder is that they seldom do.” ~ Alexander Hamilton

Luckman mentions John Stuart Mill who greatly feared the majority but Adler bring in two quotes of his that appear to prove he accepted the principle of it.  Because Luckman brings up Mill’s idea of protecting the minority, Adler then begins to speak about the majority’s responsibility for the opinions of dissenting minorities, implying that we have a problem in how we approach this responsibility in modern times.

Endless Debate
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart

First, there are three ingredients for making the majority responsible to the minority:

  1. We should never fear controversy but embrace it.  We have a moral obligation to seek out controversy, engage in it, and see it as good.
  2. We should safeguard public debates on public issues and ensure that they never become farcical.  When one uses propoganda and dishonest pressure and does not employ rational discussion, it is as bad as using guns and bombs.  He says this about the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the hot issue of slavery: “neither side in those debates was intimidated by sinister pressures or counteracted by insidious propaganda.”
  3. Public debate on public issues should be maintained as long as possible until all sides have been heard and all issues presented.  Even when a decision is made there should still be avenues for discussion for those who do not agree with it.

Only when these three elements are employed does majority rule have its fullest positive effect on decision-making.  Adler adds a quote from Mill which he believes should be engraved on the heart of every American:

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may for ought we can certainly know, be true.  To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Second, though the silenced opinion be in error, it may and very commonly does contain a portion of the truth.  And since the general or prevailing truth on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only be the collision of adverse opinion that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.  And third, even if the received opinion be not only truth, but whole truth, unless it is suffered to be and actually is vigorously and earnestly contested, it will by most of those who receive it be held in a manner of prejudice with little comprehension or feeling of its rational ground.”

Finally Adler brings up a collision of opinion that he grieves will never be resolved: the difference of opinion between generations.  In this “irresolvable dispute”, the older generation because of their life experience and maturity should be wiser than their children but the problem is that the children have not had that experience to be able to find common ground with their parents’ generation, and often irreversible mistakes are made.  His final words are compelling: “I regard this as one of the saddest facts about the human race.  If we could only do something about this, if we could only find a way of having children profit somehow by the experience of their parents, of accepting somehow the wisdom that is in their parents’ opinions as a result of that experience, I think we could change the course of human history overnight.  Progress could be made to move with much greater speed than it ever has in the whole course of human history.”

The next essay is titled How to Think About Man.

Opinion and Human Freedom                             How To Think About Man ⇒


0 thoughts on “The Great Ideas ~ Opinion and Majority Rule

  1. Awwww, looks like I deleted it by accident. Sigh…

    Anyway, I'm leaning more and more towards siding with "Plato and Hegel".

    Whole swathes of people in the United States are completely abrogating their societal duties but they still expect to have the full set of rights. That imbalance is going to bring us down as a country. The reactionary part of me says "Take away those rights!" but the more rational part of me realizes that that would be a worse imbalance than the parasites who feed off of those who do do their duty.

  2. There's never an easy answer, is there? From the way Adler talks, there seemed to have been more unified opinions and more maturity during his time, where people could speak on issues as adults and have respect for each other and hopefully come to consensus, or at least agree to disagree if they didn't. Now people behave like children and hurl insults and disagree simply because they may dislike the person. I think we've become nations of babies and bad-tempered babies, at that. Not a good prognosis for any country.

  3. Firstly, I am super inspired by your diligence and have to shamefully admit that this has gone to shelf completely for me due to you know what – work and study! But I will come back to this one day soon!I really like how he says the approach of science versus politics depends on finding facts versus opinion…I am going to think about this a little more! While I agree completely that the rule of majority is the best possible form of goverment, sometimes I do feel this majority chooses to use their mind and not make informed decisions, and then a leader is chosen who brings forth much grievance on all and sundry. Having said that, Democracy is still the way forward, just that I feel, we need to pass a EQ or IQ test or both to get voting rights!

  4. When you have an uneducated majority, decisions can be poor and then when you add immaturity and self-centredness to it, it's even more dangerous. And you're so right …. an intelligent democracy is best but as Adler says, one that serves the citizens (thinking of others rather than yourself) instead of the individual.

  5. This is a great book that I must get.

    The idea of majority vs minority is such a crucial one. On the one hand I see the people in my country who are leftward leaning politically believing that we need to have a state run by the government that will make our decisions for us on even a micro level. In left-leaning states this is already practiced with a overwhelming and cost consuming plethora of rules and regulations on everything from how to run your household to whether you can buy a non-diet large soda.

    In Europe it is even more so, where families are dictated to by the government how to discipline and educate their children. In Germany it is illegal to homeschool.

    Yet, these same people in the US complain because President Trump did not win on a majority vote.

    They think the minority should rule the majority but the majority should vote for the minority.

    I think that is why whoever is behind the media knows that one has to persuade the majority through entertainment.

    I have been pondering the topic of age segregation and how it is destructive to society. The younger need the older to teach them but our culture wants everyone to be with their own age group.

    This was instituted by Karl Marx and has been implemented in the public school system because it is conducive to manipulating young minds. I think we are seeing this played out today on college campuses.

    As you can see, your fine post touched off a nerve with me. 🙂

  6. Love the length of your comment, Sharon! My post made you think and then you made me think and perhaps my response will make someone else think. Excellent! 🙂

    The political climate in the States is stormy and as a Canadian I don't feel informed enough to adequately comment but I DO know that having a government run your lives to the small details is dangerous. Okay, I will make a comment ….. I think the Founding Fathers would be spinning in their graves because they thought they made specific provision so that didn't happen. Sadly, when people begin to think less for themselves or become lackadaisical, groups can step in and take advantage …. actually, they usually take away your freedom …..

    In Europe it is even more so, where families are dictated to by the government how to discipline and educate their children. In Germany it is illegal to homeschool.

    Yes, but I do feel people in Europe are generally better informed, are more interested in what's happening socially and politically. In France, they have a socialist system but from what I've seen, they protest and often get listened to, whereas as a Canadian voter, I feel very little of what anyone might say gets listened to here. They also are freer to protest in smaller ways, which I don't think we'd get away with here. As for homeschooling being illegal in Germany, I do understand why they are against it (you're probably surprised to hear me say that, as I'm a homeschooler myself). They have had so much influx of immigrants and with it so many problems that they are trying to mitigate some of the problems with a more homogeneous society and the way they see accomplishing that is through schooling. They fear that if they support homeschooling, the immigrants will simply keep their children home and instruct them in their traditional ways and that they won't learn how to be German. I've spoken to many people about the issues over there so while I am absolutely for homeschooling, I understand their dislike of it.

    I think that is why whoever is behind the media knows that one has to persuade the majority through entertainment.

    It's interesting that historically so many societies have seen entertainment as the downfall of a society. Specifically, I'm not sure what I think about that yet, but what concerns me nowadays is that people are not responsible when they use it/watch it, and they seem completely oblivious to the dangers of it.

    I have been pondering the topic of age segregation and how it is destructive to society. The younger need the older to teach them but our culture wants everyone to be with their own age group.

    Yes, yes, and yes! I not only see this in schools, but churches as well and it drives me crazy. It's so wonderful with the homeschoolers, because you often see a 16 year old boy helping a 5 year old learn how to skate, or a group of five 15 year old girls deep in conversation will open up and let a 9 year old be part of it. I'm firmly convinced that if we didn't have that type of segregation, we'd have a more peaceful society. Have you read John Taylor Gatto's book, The Underground History of American Education yet? It would totally speak to you, I can tell!

    In any case, great thoughts! I'll have to not wait so long to post on more of these great ideas!

  7. a great post… with serious questions and responses… i don't know any answers except that i don't think anything will change unless education improves somehow and i have no idea how that could happen… i still believe over population has a lot to do with contemporary problems; but humans object to limits on their behavior… so, like other animals, we're probably on the way out… i've been feeling more and more that those in control of the government want it that way, for some reason…
    i believe people should pay more attention to flowers and trees and spend time meditating, if nothing else…
    btw, science is not absolute: there are no absolutely final solutions to anything; just probabilities based on the evidence of our senses… my father was a quite well known physicist and he used to say that science was at base just measuring things…

  8. Enjoy reading this post and especially the comments/responses.
    Great discussion is in process.
    The essay reminded me of De Tocqueville (vol 2, part 2 ch 7) and his greatest problem with America "is not the extreme liberty that reigns there; it is the slight guarantee against tyranny that is found. (tryanny of the majority).

  9. Hi Cleopatra. I really appreciate your long reply. I guess my only disagreement would be whether the people in Europe actually are more informed about governmental decisions or if they have been trained (through their school system) to believe that the state should trump individual rights.

    I say that from living in Europe for several years (Germany and England; my sister lived in France as an Au Pair)

    I could site several examples such as the now involuntary euthanasia laws in Holland and Belgium and also the sad case in England with the baby Charlie Gard whose parents were not allowed to take him to the States for possible life-saving treatment or even take him home to die. An appointed judge decided it was in Charlie's "best interests" to die without treatment and at the hospital.

    A final example: I recently read where in Sweden if you bring your child to the hospital for a broken leg or any kind of accident, protocol is to launch a full investigation on the parents for child abuse, regardless of whether the injury was obviously an accident. The investigation includes interviewing all your neighbors. So much for privacy.

    Someone else mentioned Tocqueville and I was thinking about his comparison of Europe and America as well. To paraphrase, he thinks that Europe still had the serf mentality where the King was to act as provider.

    Warren Lewis in his wonderful book "This Splendid Century" discusses the same thing (he's C.S. Lewis' brother) in 17th century France.

    My personal opinion about Europe and it probably will come across as harsh is that they never really left the serf way of thinking. They are willing to submerge individual liberty for the sake of letting the state take care of them.

    I have not read The Underground History of American Education yet but I definitely want to!

    Anyway, I hope I don't sound divisive or too harsh. I apologize in advance if I do.

  10. My experience is only with France and I found them much more engaged and informed on many issues outside what they're "fed" in the media than Canadians are. They also had more of a voice for changing things. That said, they have a number of revolutions behind them that echo long after they're over so in certain areas the government is more willing to listen. Of course, they have their problems too, as does any country. I didn't think of the serfdom angle …. I haven't read anything purporting that but I'll keep a lookout.

    Not at all! As always, I appreciate your opinions and am very glad you give them. Whether we agree or not, I think the conversation broadens our minds and isn't that what this post is about …. the importance of healthy debate? Keep 'em coming ….! 😉

  11. I so agree that education needs to improve but we now are so splintered as a society, I wonder what that education would look like. We also have so many uneducated people in important positions and I have no idea how one would go about restructuring.

    Overpopulation and I believe, we are too globally connected. EVERYONE is now influenced by what everyone else is doing and you tend to get massive shifts either way, instead of people being more isolated and having to deal with problems independently and therefore coming up with more diverse and innovative ideas and solutions.

    Oh yes! People should pay more attention to flowers and trees and animals. We don't realize how important it is to be in nature and to let it BE nature instead of taking with us cell phones and other material things to clutter it up.

    So interesting about your father. I bug my brother-in-law doctor that doctors are just guessing and he laughs and says, "yes, but they're educated guesses ….."

  12. You're right, this sounds absolutely fascinating. Parts of it (especially the note on autocracy) reminds me of Hobbes's Leviathan, and the populous as a whole being a great beast that needs some kind of strong figurehead to keep it relatively tame and functional. In the NYT article I read last week, he also points out the idea of "force," and reminds us that violent responses are not appropriate, not only because they are immoral, but because we cannot "prove" an argument by force, we can only end that argument.

    As you quote: "to live in a peaceful society it is imperative to have means to resolve disagreement, to allow that society to work toward a common goal." This is what I have been thinking about a great deal. I think it is no coincidence that liberal education is under attack and that civics has been, for some time, methodically removed from our schools' curricula. An oppressive power does not keep the people down simply by keeping them uninformed, but also by denying them the tools needed to think and debate freely and effectively. -Adam @ Roof Beam Reader

    (I'm including my name because when I try to comment, it's coming up as anonymous. Bah.)

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!