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Is it ever morally ethical to override the majority in a democracy if you feel morally obliged to do so?

For example, a recent 'yougov' poll stated that a majority (I think somewhere in the mid-sixties) suppourted the death sentence. However, if I feel strongly morally against this, despite it being a majority, is it right to disregard them then?

Note: this is not about the death penalty itself, simply an example.

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    In the German constitution, the fundamental rights are specially protected: Even with a majority of 100% you couldn't remove them (actually I think it's not totally true because a new constitution could be decided upon, making the regulations of the current constitution, including this special protection, irrelevant; however without getting rid of the constitution there's no way). So apparently at least those who wrote the German constitution considered ethics to sometimes override the majority. – celtschk Sep 24 '12 at 17:52
  • Basically, if it weren't, no government would allow such a thing as the Supreme Court, or Presidential Veto right? The primary purpose of courts and executives empowered equally with the legislature is to decide when the democratic process is being so unreasonable or inconsistent as to be unfair according to the principles of the government itself (in the U.S. case, to the Constitution). – user9166 Jun 2 '16 at 17:53
  • I think the question could be clarified by specifying a particular moral system. For example, under the hierarchical system of morality portrayed in the Bible, while it may be good to respect laws it is also good to save someone's life. You must then make your own determination as to which is the "most" good. Therefore it is clear that it can be morally good to override the majority in some circumstances. – Jason Bray Jun 30 '16 at 16:41
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Is it ever morally ethical to override the majority in a democracy if you feel morally obliged to do so?

If you're phrasing it like that the answer seems pretty clear to me. The answer is 'Yes' if you admit to morality being subjective, for if you do feel the moral obligation to counteract the majority's wish, why wouldn't you?

The majority vote is interesting in itself. Rousseau said that the agreement on the majority vote is the only necessary concordant vote, because otherwise we cannot explain why pretty much always and everywhere, the majority vote is considered to be fair and valid, and why the minority should be accepting the majority's will (Social Contract, Chapter 5 [I think]). But even Rousseau, a radical democrat (let's call him that for reasons of simplicity), can't refute the possibility of the majority being wrong in exercising the collective will.

I am mentioning this because even if you're not a subjectivist, the argument that majority is always just or that the will of the majority must be considered 'right' is impeachable.

  • Isn't the general will also up to interpretation and may be expressed through means other than the majority vote? – ChemSniper May 29 '16 at 22:57
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Absolutely. There's a principle called "Protection of the minority" respected by most Democratic systems, that exists to do exactly that. It's the reason most countries have a constitution, and why there's a "bill of Human Rights" respected in most places.

Essentially, this principle exists to ensure that the majority can't vote to further their own causes at the expense of a minority (For example, if we were to vote that all people whose last name started with a letter after "S" in the alphabet had to give all their money to people whose name started with a letter before "S", more people would (ignoring morals) want to vote for it than against, but the protection of the minority would kick in here, through a consitutionally protected right to property, for example).

  • But from where does this principle derive morality? Why is it an objectively good idea to protect against the tyranny of the majority? – Andrew Lambert Sep 25 '12 at 20:31
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    I am not sure if there's a formal nomenclature, or any established thought on the matter, but I am reminded of a thought-line that proves that we are all in some minority or other, meaning that it is in the greater good to protect minorities, and also in the specific best interests of each individual in the group. – Ryno Sep 27 '12 at 14:38
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    The smallest and most vulnerable minority is the individual. The principle you're thinking of is the principle that every man is an end in himself. – Alfred Centauri Sep 28 '12 at 3:12
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I define morality as an expression of human compassion (an emotion,) and ethics as the intellectual expression of morality. Therefore, by this definition, nothing which is compassion-less is moral nor ethical. Principled opposition to a real or perceived injustice demonstrates compassion for ones fellow humans and how one acts on those morals determines the objective ethical value of those acts.

Being a democracy doesn't grant any special moral authority to the policies of that democracy. Classical Greece invented democracy, yet never questioned the morality of enslaving other humans.

So, I would argue that opposition to capital punishment, if you honestly see it as an incorrect act under ethics, is not only morally defensible, but morally demanded.

However, the only way to override a democracy is either to agitate for changes within the system, or to topple it and impose another. The taking of democracy from a people is self-evidently unethical: it is wrong to take from others that which isn't yours to take.

Therefore it is ethical to move within a democracy with the aim of changing it through persuasion, argument, and dialog. All other techniques demand the use of force and violence, which are never ethical.

  • Very interesting answer. What position is that, defining morality as an emotion? Emotivism? But I thought that's a meta-ethical concept. Indulge me! – iphigenie Sep 24 '12 at 20:51
  • I don't know if it has a name. It's just what I have come to believe. It probably aligns most closely with secular humanism. Basically, I view morality the emotion as arising from natural selection: species who care for each other are better suited to survive the savage tenor of nature. So, compassionate species thrive, savage nature rewards the un-savage. Morality therefore becomes a law of nature against which we can accurately gauge ourselves much like gravity allows us to gauge mass. It is moral to act for the benefit of the human species and immoral to act against it. – Andrew Lambert Sep 24 '12 at 21:01
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Both the virtue of justice and courage might require that one act in ways which are taken to be very unpopular. Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, and more than one Governor has prevented the imposition of the death penalty.

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One of the main reasons why there is a Constitution is because of that.

In democracy the people has the ultimate power, at least in theory, but the people itself may decide to protect against itself. To do that, there exists some rules, or laws, that require a special majority to be changed, not an usual one.

What's the reasoning behind that? Basically, when deciding those basic rights that must be enforced, the people reflects upon them, and doesn't make a rush decision, while in future it might happen that some specific event leads to vote for something that's against what the people really thinks is right.

  • As an extreme example, democracies that are too purely democratic have a history of ending themselves by electing a demagogue and allowing him to install himself as a tyrant. – user9166 Jun 2 '16 at 18:06
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Democracy is not ethically better or worse than other systems, and so, taking that into account, I only see one reason why it might be considered unethical to not take into account the majority's voice, and that is if doing so violates the social contract.

The social contract is a justification of government - the people who will be ruled consciously* choose to give up certain rights in exchange for security, civil liberties, and other benefits. If one of the civil liberties promised in the social contract is the right to political participation by rule of majority, then to ignore the majority's voice is to violate that right, and thus the social contract, rendering the government illegitimate.

*I emphasize consciously here just as a note, since the idea of tacit consent is still debatable.

Other than the above scenario, I don't see it as unethical to override a majority. Of course, some frameworks, such as a utilitarian framework, say we should maximize the majority's pleasure and prioritize that over a minority's pleasure, but that in no way implies listening to the majority.

If you morally obliged in a position of power - meaning, if you have a moral obligation to do X, and have the power right to do X - to override a majority vote, then you, following a principle of civil disobedience, must override that majority.

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Yes, it is sometimes ethical to override a democratic vote or a majority opinion.

In your example, say that a criminal is sentenced to death, and that the governor of the state has the final word on whether the sentence will be executed. Let's suppose there is no doubt that the criminal effectively committed the crime for which he or she has been sentenced. And that the majority of the population supports, not only death penalties in abstract, but also the execution of this particular criminal.

Is it ethichal for the governor to suspend/cancel the sentence? Maybe. Of course not if he accepts a bribe for doing it, or if it is based on some personal relation between governor and accused. But if it is based upon a principled opposition to the death penalty, or to its application in the particular case, then I would say yes, it is ethical (what it probably isn't, is political expedient.

Would it be undemocratic? Also no, for the constitution of the state, which is itself the product of a democratic deliberation, bestows this decision upon the governor.

If you see a law as immoral or unjust, it may even be a moral duty to disobey it, never mind how many people disagreee with you.


More generally, we take for granted that some decisions are subjected to the democratic vote (are we going to build a bridge over this river, are we going to criminalise the use or commerce of marijuana or krokodil, etc.) and that other decisions are definitely outside the scope of democracy (who will Jane marry, can John sell himself into slavery or not, should we torture the criminal in the first example before the execution, is the Bible to be taught in school as literally true, and so on). But a long time, a lot of effort, and several mistakes and miscarriages were necessary for us to pacify these views.

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This question appears to be somewhat based on the premise that the source of morality is the whim of the majority. But, it is not the case that the source of morality is the whim of the majority.

The source of morality is man's nature as a rational being. Thinking is your means of survival. Use it.

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    Most answers suffer from this, but I'll put it just here: according to which author? Don't push your personal philosophy in your answers. – Lukas May 29 '16 at 23:08
  • Just read the FAQ, your answer is not suited for this site. – Lukas May 31 '16 at 8:52
  • @Lukas, once again, I will answer as I wish to. Just read this. – Alfred Centauri May 31 '16 at 22:07
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If ever time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.

-- Samuel Adams

  • Some would argue that it is ALWAYS appropriate to override the "will of the people" if that results in a better solution than whatever the "will of the people" demands.
  • Some would argue that the "will of the people" is totally irrelevant with respect to what's good and healthy for any society.
  • Some would argue that democracy as a concept is flawed and injust.
  • Some would argue that democracy is at its worst just oligarchy in disguise and at its best just mob rule.

From that perspective, morality is completely unrelated to whatever politicians decide or whatever the majority wants and democracies should be replaced by alternatives.

We don't just need to choose between Democracy or Dictatorship, between Communism or Capitalism. We mustn't just accept Capitalism and Democracy as the lesser evil, just because we don't like Communism and Dictatorship as alternatives. There ARE other options.

What options can I think of? Well, consider, for example, a communitarian meritocracy, where society is organised along a rigid social hierarchy, but where that hierarchy is based on neither popularity nor heredity but on merit alone. That's just one of many examples I can think of that doesn't fit into the classic dichotomies most people tend to limit themselves to.

Liberty has never lasted long in a democracy, nor has it ever ended in anything better than despotism

-- Fisher Ames

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    This is an SE about philosophy -- not a forum. Structure your posts accordingly -- meaning source them in philosophy (roughly as defined in academic philosophy) -- rather than just making claims. – virmaior May 9 '15 at 3:14
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    @virmaior: I find your comment abhorrent, an abuse of your moderator's status. Also, your ignorance of what constitutes philosophy is glaring (yes I note you claim to have doctorate in philosophy and I believe it: that's how far down the educational systems has descended). No wonder I've never even ventured to this site before now. I think I've seen some comments in meta about how bad it is, but I've not put much credence on such claims, and then I meet this, jeez. – Cheers and hth. - Alf May 9 '15 at 13:32
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf Those who consider philosophy an academic field of study distinct from daily life fail to grasp what philosophy is all about, namely the organic enterprise of individuals trying to make sense of the universe we live in on a daily basis. IMO they shoud all first read "Sophie's World" before moving on to Plato or Kant. – John Slegers May 9 '15 at 13:58
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    This answer does not address the question, since it does not address the conditions under which it is appropriate to override the "will of the people" given that the form of government under consideration is a democracy. – Dave May 11 '15 at 20:37
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    In my opinion, explicitly stating that "it is always appropriate..." is more useful (in the context of this question) than alluding to that fact indirectly by attacking the concept of democratic government in general. – Dave May 12 '15 at 13:39

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