E. Belfort Bax, Majority as Standard of Value, Justice, 18th April 1918, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).
The current view, political, ethical and intellectual, is that a kind of magic virtue resides in a majority as such. Any opinion or any act sanctioned, even tacitly, by a mere count of heads majority is possessed of a cachet which is in itself an armour against the assaults of criticism. Now it is as well to seek to investigate the real import and significance of the sanctions, attached to the will and views of majorities.
As regards the theoretical opinions of a majority on questions of fact, or abstract truth, or fallacy, history and common experience alike tell us that majorities are at least as likely to be wrong as right. A new truth always remains for a long time the appanage of a minority. It may be true it is subsequently accepted by the majority, but this acceptance is for the most part of a somewhat mechanical character; the proper understanding of its true inwardness, generally speaking, still resides in the minority. These remarks apply, of course, more particularly to a promiscuous or count-of-heads majority. They apply, naturally, less to a “specialist” majority, i.e. a majority of competent persons quoad the subject under discussion. But even here the history of science in all its branches has taught us that the mere majority, even of select persons, is not to be trusted in its verdict as against that of the minority, or for that matter the individual from among them. In short, experience tells us that “majoritiness” as a standard of truth value has at best an uncertain presumptive claim in the case of specially select or competent persons, and none at all that of the promiscuous mass of mankind. The latter invariably at first rejects a truth, and when it afterwards accepts it does so in a mechanical manner which reduces its value pro tanto.
If we turn from abstract truth and truth of fact to truth in the sense of right judgment in matters of conduct and in practical decisions generally, we shall find similar evidence as regards the question of the value of the judgment of a promiscuous majority as representing a true judgment, in the sense of a judgment embodying the highest practical utility – the greatest “wisdom” on a given issue. In spite of what is said, as regards popular instinct, the vote of a majority is quite as likely to go wrong as to go right. This, of course, refers to average and general conditions. There may be circumstances and occasions in which a majority of a given population is more likely to be right than wrong. On the other hand, there is the contrary case.
This practical side of the question of majority judgment as a standard of value in political and social issues is of the utmost interest as regards the theory of democracy. All democrats start from the assumption that the telos or end of all political or social action is collective human well-being. But here, of course, three questions immediately arise; – (1) That as to the summum bonum which however, is necessarily for most people more or less vague and abstract, and thus per se only remotely affects the practical questions awaiting solution of the hands of the democracy of to-day; (2) the eminently practical question as to what is the immediate end of political action – what is the immediate “good” of the human collectivity or people? There are aspects, of course, of this problem as to which there is practical unanimity, e.g., those as to decent feeding, housing, education, etc., but beyond these there are further aspects. For example does the “good” of the people consist in an ascetic deal of life or in a free ideal of “live and let live”? Lastly, there is (3) the important question of ways and means – in other words, of general policy.
Now the problem immediately before us is, why do we as democrats respect the majority to the extent of claiming its decisions on these matters us worthy of acceptation? It is not because in the matter of scientific or speculative truth its opinions deserve more respect, than those of the minority. It is not because in the matter of ideal aims it is likely to be on a higher level than the minority. It is not even that in its practical judgments as to immediate objects for happiness and welfare of the social whole, of which it forms the numerically largest section, or as to the most effective means of achieving these objects, it need necessarily show greater wisdom than the minority, although as regards these two last points its instincts may, other things equal, give it some advantage. No, the chief reason is that to avoid the position Buridan’s ass, midway between its two loads of hay, Society has to come to a decision on the issues before it, and that the verdict of the majority affords what, on the whole, human experience has shown to be the most convenient standard. Originally the ultima ratio of all decisions was the active force of arms. Under this condition of affairs victory, other things equal, fell to the most numerous host. As Napoleon said, “Providence is on the side of big battalions.” Gradually, therefore, the principle of submitting to the majority, as representing the stronger power, without a fight, superseded the ordeal by battle. The potential force of the majority took the place of the actual force. Such and nothing else, is the real origin and meaning of democratic respect for the will of the majority, and democratic willingness, or even insistence on the duty of bowing to its decisions. On the other hand, to erect the majority as such, into something sacrosanct is fetishism and superstition.
Last updated on 28.5.2007